With the trade of Milton Bradley (OK, I had to mention him for the purpose of this post) to the Mariners and the expected move of Kosuke Fukudome back to right field -- which should greatly improve the Cubs' outfield defense -- the Cubs need a center fielder for 2010. For all of you who think Marlon Byrd is "inevitably" going to fill that position, my opinion is: maybe not, and maybe there's a better answer than Byrd.
Byrd had a career year in 2009, something that's really good to have when you're entering free agency. He hit .283/.329/.479 (.808 OPS) with a career-high 20 HR and 89 RBI. Actually, some have argued, and they have a point, that Byrd actually had a better year in 2008 than in 2009, when he hit .298/.380/.462 (.842 OPS) with fewer HR and RBI, but more runs, more walks and fewer strikeouts. His OPS+ was 121 in 2008, 106 last year. He did hit 43 doubles in 2009; that ranked 8th in the American League. His 10 sacrifice flies led the AL, not that SF are a stat you'd want to argue is the best reason to sign a free agent.
Byrd is a decent player, but not one I'd like to shower with free-agent money; he'll be 33 next August and there is, I believe, a significant risk that he'd decline from his 2008-09 levels. The way Jim Hendry has thrown around contract money in the past, I'd be afraid we'd be stuck with a mediocre platoon CF in 2011 who was making $6 million.
One possible trade acquisition -- Melky Cabrera -- is already gone, dealt to the Braves from the Yankees. It might be worth it for the Cubs to investigate the reacquisition of Felix Pie, someone they never should have given up on in the first place. But there aren't a lot of other trade options, at least not ones that aren't expensive (sure, I'd like Aaron Rowand, but his contract is frighteningly large). Follow me after the jump for my admittedly temporary solution to the CF problem.
Here's what I'd do: re-sign Reed Johnson to a reasonable contract -- he'd probably take a bit less than market value to return to the Cubs -- and platoon him with Sam Fuld. Before you get out the pitchforks and tell me that Fuld is not a major league player, he actually acquitted himself quite well as a starter when pressed into service due to various injuries. In an admittedly small-sample-size 85 plate appearances vs. RHP, Fuld hit .296/.412/.380. (In fact, Fuld actually hit LHP better: .308/.400/.500, though that's an even smaller sample of 30 PA, and the SLG is that high because the one HR he hit was off a LHP.) Meanwhile, Johnson, as we know, hits lefthanders very well: .324/.403/.500 in 78 PA in 2009, .333/.399/.449 in 169 PA in 2008, and .313/.378/.463 for his career.
I believe a Fuld/Johnson platoon would provide at least adequate offense -- though with little power, which hopefully would be made up for by a healthy Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez, and a Geovany Soto closer to the 2008 model than the 2009 model -- and above-average defense.
And for the fifth outfielder spot, I'd give Tyler Colvin a shot. You know, eventually you've got to give your farm products a chance to produce. Colvin looked a little overmatched in his September callup, going 3-for-17, but he also played outstanding defense and he had put up decent offensive numbers in the minor leagues in 2009, going .286/.332/.480 -- and that in a year coming off Tommy John surgery. Plus, you wouldn't be asking Colvin to be a regular -- just be a defensive replacement, start once every couple of weeks, and hit off the bench, something he could work on during spring training.
Let's also remember that on May 14, 2008, Jim Edmonds got dropped into the Cubs' laps. Before that date the Cubs were 24-16 and of the 40 games played to that date, 24 had been started in CF by Johnson (hitting .256/.343/.331 through May 14), 15 by Felix Pie (hitting .222/.286/.286 through May 14), and one by Kosuke Fukudome (who went 0-for-4 in that April 11, 2008 game).
So CF was a black hole offensively at the time, and many of us scratched our heads at the Edmonds acquisition, because he had hit worse than Johnson or Pie for the Padres -- .178/.265/.233, numbers more reminiscent of Aaron Miles than a major league outfielder. I was one of the ones saying "Why Edmonds?" the loudest, and more than happy to say I was wrong when Edmonds put up .256/.369/.568 (.937 OPS) numbers for the Cubs with 19 HR and 49 RBI in 85 games. Edmonds was a big reason why the Cubs went 73-49 after he was acquired.
Now, at this time it's impossible to predict whether someone like Edmonds -- or anyone else -- would become available for trade during the season. But with potential savings of up to $6 million -- thanks to the Bradley trade -- why not hold that money in reserve and see who might be acquirable by trade in May or June, if a Fuld/Johnson platoon doesn't work? To me, that makes more sense than to make a knee-jerk move just to say you "did something". Sometimes, the best trades are the ones you don't make. This situation appears to be one of those times.
Finally, the Cubs need to get this done quickly, as there are other suitors for Johnson, including the Yankees. I wouldn't want to see the Cubs not be able to do this platoon, and then be stuck with a bad trade or signing, as they were in 2006 when "forced" to trade for Juan Pierre.