PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Surveying the plentiful options in the Cubs' outfield

Chicago Cubs

New Cubs manager David Ross recently told a number of reporters, "Traditionally, I like a standard lineup as much as I possibly can. I think the flow of a normal, consistent lineup is important to some of the players. It’s a real thing, as much as we don’t measure it."

However, those aspirational words may be tough for Ross to achieve in practice this season—particularly in the outfield. Though Jason Heyward (OF, CHC) and Kyle Schwarber (OF, CHC) figure to occupy outfield spots regularly, both remained poor against left-handed pitching (.553 OPS and .756 OPS, respectively) last season. While Schwarber is likely to remain in the lineup even with southpaws on the mound, Heyward is a prime candidate to have a platoon partner. 

In addition to finding at-bats with lefties on the mound, the Cubs still need to fill an outstanding spot in the outfield. Of their current choices, the three candidates who are most likely to earn playing time to begin the season include Ian Happ (OF, CHC), Steven Souza (OF, CHC), and Albert Almora (OF, CHC). Happ is the presumed favorite and will likely spend the majority of his time in the outfield, assuming either Jason Kipnis (2B, CHC) or Nico Hoerner (2B/SS, CHC) can prove viable at second base. Even so, Happ isn’t a sure thing, as he has struggled to make contact throughout his career (62 ct% in 891 at-bats).

Souza has a similar profile (65 ct% in 1,590 career at-bats) with a lengthy injury history as well (267 days on the injured list in the last three seasons), but his .759 OPS against southpaws could make him a strong candidate to take at-bats from Heyward with left-handers on the mound. Finally, Almora enters the 2020 season in what appears to be a prove-it year. The former sixth overall pick remains an excellent fielder (80th percentile in outs above average and 88th percentile in jump on balls in the air in 2019), but has failed to make impact with the bat (29 BPV in 1,194 career at-bats). Therefore, his most likely path to playing time is if the Cubs choose to focus on a strong defensive outfield rather than potential production with the bat.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

The Cardinals outfield also remains in flux. Dexter Fowler (OF, STL) is solid yet unspectacular, Tyler O’Neill (OF, STL) may never make consistent enough contact to play every day, and Tommy Edman (2B/3B, STL) is a relative unknown who also has enough positional versatility to shift away from the outfield. This uninspiring picture has many counting the days until Dylan Carlson (OF, STL) makes his major league debut with the club.

While Carlson has all the hype, it’s a bit premature to write off some other young hitters that should factor into the playing time equation in the outfield. Harrison Bader (OF, STL) was labeled a disappointment in 2019, and his surface stats largely back that (12 HR, 39 RBI, 54 R, .205/.314/.366). Under the surface, however, his skills took a step forward. His jump from a 0.25 Eye to 0.39 may be explained more by his name frequently appearing eighth on the lineup card rather than by improved plate discipline, but Bader also saw his xPX spike from 95 to 141 while his FB% jumped from 33% to 44%. That hints at a power breakout if he is given regular playing time, and with a 16% SBO and 142 Spd score, it’s no wonder Bader was tagged with upside of a 20 HR/20 SB campaign in the 2020 Baseball Forecaster.

Another name that shouldn’t be forgotten is Lane Thomas (OF, STL). Thomas has hit well for the vast majority of his time in a Cardinals uniform. He posted two above-average offensive lines at AA-Springfield and AAA-Memphis in 2018, recording a 123 wRC+ across 435 plate appearances in AA paired with a 110 wRC+ after he was promoted a level. While he was less inspiring in Memphis last season, Thomas made a loud entrance to the major leagues by posting a 108 BPV in his short stint with the Cardinals to close the 2019 campaign. 

 

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers starting outfield is perhaps one of the best heading into the 2020 season, with Christian Yelich (OF, MIL), Lorenzo Cain (OF, MIL), and Avisail Garcia (OF, MIL) projected to be the club’s Opening Day trio. While Garcia was one of the team’s major free agent acquisitions during the offseason, a pair of prospects may have the chance to make an impact in 2020.

Corey Ray (OF, MIL) entered the 2019 campaign with high expectations after being the Brewers Minor League Hitter of the Year in 2018. He earned that honor by slugging 27 homers and swiping 37 bases in AA-Biloxi. However, his 2019 encore was anything but an inspiration. While many of Ray’s struggles may rightfully may be pinned on a finger injury that plagued him throughout the season, his consistently high strikeout rate—Ray has never posted a strikeout rate lower than 30% at a level higher than Single-A—spiked to a whopping 38%. Seemingly fully healthy entering 2020, Ray may get the chance to prove that his strong pedigree and multiple years of development will pay off at the major league level.

Tyrone Taylor (OF, MIL) had a significant amount of buzz several years ago, but the 2012 second-round pick seemingly finds himself in the territory of now or never. He’ll enter the season already working uphill, as he had offseason wrist surgery and likely won’t be ready for game action by Opening Day. Still, Taylor has spent the majority of the past two seasons at AAA-San Antonio/Colorado Springs. Throughout his time in the organization, Taylor has flashed the opposite profile of Ray—an ability to make plenty of contact with less pop. Given his current lack of health and the crowded outfield in Milwaukee, Taylor isn't likely to make an immediate impact, but could be in line for playing time if injuries strike the team's regulars. 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates failed to secure a catcher of the future during the offseason, leaving the long-term outlook at the position murky. Things aren’t much clearer in the short-term, as the team currently has four options that will vie for playing time in 2020. Jacob Stallings (C, PIT) logged 210 plate appearances for the team last season, and closed the year as their primary catcher due an injury-plagued season for Francisco Cervelli (C, MIA) and the poor performance of Elias Diaz (C, COL). With both of those players now out of the picture, Stallings should be considered the incumbent for the position, though that may mean less given that a new manager and front office are in place. Metrics reflect that Stallings has a strong arm and is an above-average framer, both of which could aid him in the competition for playing time. With the bat, Stallings showed the ability to make contact regularly while also making hard contact at a decent clip (79 ct%, 95 HctX), but his high ground ball rate (48%) capped his power upside (60 PX, 74 xPX).

The Pirates inked backstop Luke Maile (C, PIT) to a one-year contract this offseason. Though he has yet to log a single plate appearance for the team, general manager Ben Cherington knows Maile well when the two overlapped in time spent with the Blue Jays. Maile profiles as a worse defender than Stallings, but has shown more power potential with his bat. Though his 2019 profile was certainly uninspiring (72 ct%, 71 HctX, 44 PX), Maile’s 2018 profile left the window cracked open for the hope of respectable fantasy production (84 HctX, 94 PX, 100 xPX).   

Finally, both John Ryan Murphy (C, PIT) and Andrew Susac (C, PIT) were offseason additions, but both figure to provide organizational depth rather than competing for regular playing time without injury.

 

Cincinnati Reds

The Reds have been the busiest of the NL Central teams this offseason. While many of their additions have come in the outfield, they have also quietly added depth to their bullpen by signing Pedro Strop (RHP, CIN), Brad Boxberger (RHP, CIN), and Nate Jones (RHP, CIN). With Michael Lorenzen (RHP, CIN), Amir Garrett (LHP, CIN), and Robert Stephenson (RHP, CIN) already in place as strong holdovers from the team’s 2019 bullpen, it’s safe to wonder if Raisel Iglesias (RHP, CIN) will be the team’s primary closer for the entire 2020 campaign.

However, a combination of both team context and individual skills suggest Iglesias is a safer bet to remain in the role than he appears at first glance. Strop struggled to find the strike zone and was stung by long ball in 2019 (4.3 Ctl, 1.3 hr/9), all while also experiencing a sharp decline in his velocity. At the age of 35, Strop isn’t likely to regain peak form. Meanwhile, Garrett saw a rise in his Ctl rate, though his Dom also jumped from 10.1 to 12.5 from 2018 to 2019. Perhaps more importantly, Garrett and Cody Reed (LHP, CIN) project as the only two left-handers in the team’s bullpen. It’s doubtful that Reed will be trusted with high-leverage roles immediately, meaning Garrett is likely to be called upon against the opposition’s best left-handed hitters rather than in save situations.

That leaves Iglesias’s primary competition for the closer role as Lorenzen and Stephenson. While Iglesias himself has a problem with the long ball (1.5 hr/9 in 2018, 1.6 in 2019), his underlying stats (12.0 Dom and 4.2 Cmd) both well outpace the marks posted by Lorenzen (9.2 Dom, 3.0 Cmd). Finally, Stephenson showed promising skill (11.3 Dom and 3.4 Cmd) across 65 innings out of the bullpen in 2019. He was also trusted in a more high-leverage role (.57 LI in 2018, .96 in 2019) by the club, making it easier to envision him being thrust into the closer role. Despite the brand-name offseason acquisitions made by the team, Stephenson may be the best late investment if speculating that Iglesias will falter.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.