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The Cubs Have Too Many Outfielders

Only three players can play the outfield at once. The Cubs have a lot more than that. That's a good problem, but it's still a problem.

Harry How/Getty Images

The Cubs signed outfielder Jon Jay this week on a nice one-year, $8 million contract. It’s a nice deal in that the Cubs are likely saying goodbye to free agent Dexter Fowler and the team would like some insurance in case rookie Albert Almora Jr. fails to develop as we would all hope. Jay isn’t great, but he’s a solid player who has a career .352 on-base percentage and can play a credible center field.

However, this development, even with Fowler’s departure, leaves seven outfielders on the 40-man roster. In alphabetical order:

  • Almora
  • Jacob Hannemann
  • Jason Heyward
  • Jay
  • Kyle Schwarber
  • Jorge Soler
  • Matt Szczur

OK, that’s not so bad. Hannemann is unlikely to play in the majors and is on the roster solely to protect him from the Rule 5 draft. Almora could start the season in Iowa and Szczur, as much as we all love him, is really just a very good 5th outfielder. He could be dealt if Almora spends the whole season in the majors.

But that’s not the only issue. Ben Zobrist is listed on the 40-man as an infielder, but he’s likely going to have to spend significant time playing the outfield because Javier Baez looks to be the everyday second baseman next season.

Then there’s reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant, who played 69 games in the outfield last year. When Zobrist plays second, then Baez or Tommy La Stella moves over to third base and Bryant goes to left field.

And let’s not even get into last spring’s experiment to get Baez into the outfield. He only played two games there last year, which is one fewer than Travis Wood played.

Another issue could be Cubs top prospect (or co-top prospect) Ian Happ, who could be major-league ready in 2017. The Cubs have been having him try to master second base and while he’s got a chance to stick there, he’s not going to be playing there for the Cubs without a serious run of injuries. Not with Baez, Zobrist and La Stella all ahead of him at second. Nope, Happ will likely have to go back to his original (and best) position, which is left field.

(To the first person to mention Eloy Jimenez: Shut up. That's a problem for next winter.)

So what are the Cubs going to do? Heading into the Winter Meetings, the Cubs outfield is likely Heyward in right, Schwarber in left and Almora and Jay splitting time in center. That leaves Zobrist (or Baez) on the bench along with Soler and Szczur. That’s one potentially awesome bench, but it’s also a lot of wasted talent waiting for a pinch-hitting opportunity.

So how can the Cubs resolve this logjam? We all know that Heyward struggled a lot at the plate last year, but he’s going to get every chance to return to his pre-2016 form because of his defense and his contract. For all the talk about the upside of Schwarber, Baez and even Almora, Heyward is still young and still has a ton of upside. The Cubs could rest him against left-handers and put Zobrist out there, but the Cubs only faced 45 left-handed starters in the regular season last year.

Schwarber could also sit against left-handers as he struggled against them in 2015, at least in the majors. But he had no trouble clobbering lefties in the minors and I tend to think that his exaggerated splits in 2015 were just a fluke. Schwarber will always hit right-handers better than southpaws because that's what left-handed hitters do, but I don’t think his special bat will struggle as badly against left-handers again this season.

In this case, you have Schwarber, Jay and Heyward starting against right-handed pitchers and Soler, Almora and Zobrist starting against lefties with Szczur serving as a defensive replacement. Bryant moves out to left field on days that Maddon wants both Baez and Zobrist (or La Stella) in the infield. If anyone could make that work, Joe Maddon could.

More likely, however, is that someone is going to be traded and it could be as soon as this week at the Winter Meetings. Heyward is going nowhere because of his contract and Zobrist won’t be traded either. Jay just signed, so he’s staying. That leaves Almora, Schwarber, Soler and Szczur as trade bait.

First, cross off Szczur. It’s not that he’s not expendable, it’s that trading him doesn’t bring anything back and it doesn’t solve the logjam because he’s a defensive replacement and pinch-hitter, not a starter. If the Cubs get rid of Szczur, it moves Almora into Szczur’s role and I think the Cubs have higher hopes for Albert than that. Szczur could go, but it doesn't solve anything.

Trading Schwarber would be one huge roll of the dice. We all know that Schwarber is going to struggle to find a position, although left field looks to be his best bet. Returning to catching after his knee injury might be unnecessarily tempting fate, especially since he was never much good there and Willson Contreras is. A lot of observers think Schwarber should be a DH, which would be why it would make sense to deal him to an American League team.

But we also all know that Schwarber has the possibility of being a truly special hitter on par with Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. You don’t give up players like that lightly. (Unless you’re the Padres, I guess.)

If the Cubs do decide to deal Schwarber, I’d love to see them pull of a phenom-challenge trade for the Twins' Byron Buxton, who has struggled in the majors but still has Mike Trout-type upside. But the Twins aren’t going to make that trade. They’ve already got a defensively-challenged slugger in Miguel Sano who should be a DH and Joe Mauer who should probably be the DH most days as well.

No, the most likely possibility for Schwarber would be a starting pitcher like Chris Archer, as our friends at DRays Bay proposed a few days ago. It doesn’t have to be Archer (although he’s under team control through 2021 and is familiar with the Cubs), but a pitcher like that would likely be the best return for Schwarber. Chris Sale would make a lot of sense, but the White Sox have made it clear they aren’t trading Sale to the Cubs.

But the Cubs have a lot of faith in Schwarber’s bat and are reportedly dead-set against dealing him.

So what about Almora? Almora wouldn’t bring back anything close to what Schwarber would bring back, and that’s a problem. Also, he’s the best defensive center fielder the Cubs have. If Schwarber is in left, then it would be nice to have Almora in center field next to him. He certainly doesn’t have Schwarber or Soler’s upside with the bat, but his upside in the field is almost as high. He could end up as a similar ballplayer to Kevin Kiermaier, and depending on which system you use, Kiermaier has been a 4 to 7 win player the past two seasons. And dealing Almora means that Jay and Szczur are the only true center fielders on the roster. Yes, Heyward can play there, but then you lose his glove in right and he’s not outstanding in center like he is in right.

Finally, that leaves trading Soler. Soler has a lot of upside with the bat as well — not as much as Schwarber but almost. He’s got just as much power (although from the right side) and while he won’t hit for as much average as Schwarber, he’s likely better than the .238 he was last year.

Soler is more expendable than the other players. Defensively, he’s been a mess — worse than Schwarber, really. He shouldn't be that bad, but so far he has been. He also has trouble staying healthy and he really struggled last season at the bat, although a lot of that can be attributed to his inability to stay in the lineup because of injury or just better players.

The problem with dealing Soler is that the Cubs would really be selling low on him right now. He would not likely bring back any more than Almora would: maybe a solid middle reliever and a prospect in the bottom part of a Top 100 prospect list. And again, his offensive upside is really high. For all his struggles last season, his OPS+ was 105. We should all struggle like that.

But while Soler’s value is low right now, there’s no guarantee his value won’t get even lower. All-in-all, I expect the Cubs to try to get whatever they can for Soler next week. They won’t take a deal just to clear the logjam, but I suspect they’ll actively shop him.

There is one other option: do nothing. The Cubs had a similar glut in the outfield last year and Schwarber’s injury solved it pretty quickly. Soler only managed to play 86 games as well. Plus, while I believe Heyward will bounce back at the plate, I don’t know that he will. It’s not likely, but it’s possible that Heyward’s bat erodes to the point where he’s the highest-paid fifth outfielder in baseball history. I’ve never heard a team say "I wish we had less depth."

And that gets to the heart of the matter. It’s a terrific problem for the Cubs to have, but it’s still a problem. But there’s a cost to inaction. If Almora and/or Soler sit on the bench (or Des Moines) for most of 2017, their trade value will erode. Of course, there’s a cost to taking the wrong action as well. If the Cubs deal Schwarber and he ends up being a superstar, that’s a left-handed bat the Cubs could have used to win multiple World Series.

I suspect we’ll find out what the Cubs intend to do in the next week or so.