State of the Cubs: Left field
Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.
It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.
Next up: Left Field
- Kyle Schwarber
- Ian Happ
- Cameron Maybin
- Brennen Davis
- Cole Roederer
When the designated hitter in the National League was announced David Ross was quick to dismiss the thought of Kyle Schwarber being penciled into that role. Instead, Ross locked Schwarber into the left field role and stuck with him. Schwarber started 48 games in left field and 8 games as the designated hitter. He had a 1.000 fielding percentage in left field with 70 putouts and 3 assists. It was the first year without an error in left field for Schwarber since 2016, when he played 2 games before tearing his ACL.
But Schwarber’s numbers offensively weren’t the numbers the Cubs had been accustomed to seeing out of their slugging left fielder. He had a .701 OPS, his lowest of his career. Like many hitters across baseball, Schwarber didn’t have ample time to make adjustments in the shortened, 60-game season.
“League-wide, I think the pressure of making the adjustment, getting out of the slump, knowing that there’s only 60 games to play with wore heavy on a lot of guys and on our guys, too,” Theo Epstein said at the end of the season.
The shortened season also amounted to some bad luck for Schwarber. Over the course of a 162-game season, numbers should even out, and hot stretches will be balanced by cold stretches and vice versa. Schwarber didn’t have that fortune this year. He hit the ball as hard as he normally did — he ranked in the 95th percentile in exit velocity, per Baseball Savant and in the 86th percentile of hard-hit percentage. His slugging percentage — .393 — was lower than his expected slugging percentage — .444 — per Baseball savant. Some of the dip in production was tied to a bit of bad luck — numerous times Schwarber — and other Cubs for that matter — made quality contact that ultimately were hit right at the opposition.
“You can’t control where the ball goes,” David Ross said after the Cubs lost to the Pirates late in September. “You barrel balls up, hit it extremely hard right at guys, not a whole lot you can control with that.”
Schwarber’s offensive output coupled with his contract situation makes him another interesting case on the Cubs roster. He has one more year of club control and is set to become a free agent after the 2021 season, like Kris Bryant, Javy Báez and Anthony Rizzo, if his option is picked up. Like Bryant, do the Cubs extend Schwarber, trade him for prospects or hang on to him for a final season before he hits the free agent market?
“Yeah, I think, it is still certainly the case that there are no untouchables,” Epstein said. “That’s been our policy for 9 years and I think the policy of most teams. Clearly, some change is warranted and necessary. We have not performed up to our expectations offensively and especially at the most important times of the year and sorta simply hoping for a better outcome moving forward doesn’t seem like a thoughtful approach.
“Embracing some change, even significant change is warranted. As far as that, is that possible, is it possible to thread the needle and improve in 2021, while also setting ourselves up for the long-term future, I think it is.”
Ian Happ filled in at left field late in games with Albert Almora Jr. and then Billy Hamilton playing center field for defensive purposes. Cameron Maybin was acquired at the trade deadline and started three games in left field but is set to become a free agent and will be 34 next season. Whether he returns in 2021 remains up in the air.
The Cubs will have to make a decision on Schwarber, there’s no doubt about that. Regardless of what the Cubs decide to do, Schwarber won’t stress on that, especially since it’s out of his control.
“I already got a bunch of gray hairs on my head, just because I think a lot about baseball,” Schwarber said before the Cubs’ before the Cubs’ final game of the Wild Card series against the Marlins. “I don’t need (trade talk) on my mind too.”
If they decide to move on from Schwarber, the Cubs could acquire a veteran free agent to fill the void in left or move Happ to left field and sign a free agent to patrol center field.
The Cubs have a pair of interesting prospects in their farm system that could help the big-league club in the future in Brennan Davis and Cole Roederer. Davis, the Cubs’ second-round pick in 2018, is their second ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline. He’s been praised for his bat, which has generated some pop and has made solid contact in the lower levels of the minor leagues. He projects as a potential 30-30 player, although he is seen as a center fielder long term with his plus speed. The Cubs could turn to him in left when he reaches the majors so that a rookie isn’t tasked with the role of patrolling center, especially when Happ has proven capable of playing there.
Roederer, the Cubs’ fifth-ranked prospect, per MLB Pipeline, has shown some pop in the minors, clubbing 9 home runs in Class-A South Bend in 2019 and projects as a 20-25 home run player, if he can add some strength to his quick swing. If that does happen, Roederer could lose some quickness, making him an ideal candidate for the left field role.
Both Roederer and Davis haven’t played above full-season A-ball at South Bend, though. It’s unlikely, especially with no minor league season in 2020, that the duo will reach the majors in 2021.
The Cubs will have to make a decision on Schwarber, like they will with Rizzo, Báez and Bryant. If the Cubs hang onto Schwarber, they’ll hope that a full season will allow Schwarber to bounce back to his pre-2020 form, where he was a devastating power force in the middle of the Cubs lineup.
If they decide to move him, they’ll need someone to play left field, likely from free agency, to fill the gap and hold the position until Roederer or Davis are major-league ready.
The outcome of this decision will be something Cubs fans will monitor this offseason.