Sometimes, Cubs fans state that the team could use an upgrade in center field, or at the lead-off spot, as if that is new information. The Cubs have been troubled in both spots, largely, since the 1950s. When they have stumbled into a player to usefully occupy both spots, they've been generally fine. From Bob Dernier and Jerome Walton to Kenny Lofton and Dexter Fowler. Oddly, teams don't want to surrender their good players any more than you want the Cubs to do the same. Which leads to my look at center fielder Jose Ortiz.
Born in Ponce, Puerto Rico in 1947, Ortiz started his way up the affiliated ladder in 1966 in the White Sox system. He stole 79 bases in the minor league in 1967. He reached the major leagues with the White Sox in 1969, and had a small sample size that year and the next. In the 1970-71 offseason, the Cubs and Sox engineered a very incidental trade. Ortiz was the main piece to the Cubs, and a glance at the exchange explains the Cubs’ trouble in center field for decades.
The 1970 Cubs might have been better than the division champion Pirates. The Cubs started the season with Joe Decker in the rotation, and Jim Hickman and Rule 5 choice Cleo James in center. With a bullpen that was scary the entire season, and Randy Hundley's health starting to disappear, the Pirates won the division by not having any glaring weaknesses. Joe Pepitone was added mid-season, along with Milt Pappas, but center field remained a concern.
Ernie Banks started the 1971 season injured, so Pepitone was the starting first baseman. Ortiz became the 19th different starting center fielder in the previous 21 years, with Adolfo Phillips and Gale Wade (who deserves a segment, as well) starting on opening day in successive seasons.
Why were/are the Cubs so negligent in center field? It's one of those positions that's a bit tough to assess, but to get the best takes an early commitment. The Cubs bought on Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ, but they haven't been regular starter good, yet. They have tried a few times, but neither Doug Glanville nor Corey Patterson were long-term answers. Dernier and Walton stopped hitting. Kenny Lofton and Dexter Fowler chased contracts. To get a valid long-term center fielder requires good fortune, a development system, repeated attempts, and patience. The Cubs haven't parlayed them all in a long time.
Ortiz drove in three runs as a Cub, and was returned to Iowa, where he would play until 1975. Ortiz ended up like so many other Cubs center fielders. He had nothing particularly distinguishing about him. A career .301 hitter (in a very small sample size), his speed and defense were a bit MLB-ordinary. To fix the long-existing problem, the Cubs can pay a market value for a veteran with no guarantee on results, stumble into one by accident (Fowler, Dernier, Walton) and hope it lasts, or pot- commit to adding a reasonable center field option almost every amateur cycle until the problem no longer exists. After all, catching used to be a weakness, until Willson Contreras (international), Victor Caratini (trade), Miguel Amaya (international) and others turned it into a strength.