Jorge Soler has been the subject of trade rumors since the World Series ended, and it doesn’t look like those talks are slowing down. If anything, they are accelerating, though the return has changed. While the initial thoughts were that the Cubs would move their right fielder for an arm, it now looks as though they could be looking for a center fielder.
— Julie DiCaro (@JulieDiCaro) December 14, 2015
Ender Inciarte, you may recall, came to Atlanta as part of the exorbitant price the D-Backs paid for Shelby Miller. Having just turned 25 at the end of October, Inciarte is entering only his third MLB season and is under control through the 2020 season. His youth, control, and varied skillset make him a pretty sought-after commodity, hence the “Soler plus” part of DiCaro’s tweet. She went on to say that the Cubs are discussing internally whether the new Brave is worth the steep price.
While Jason Heyward could probably play an above-average center fielder if pressed into service there, paying a guy a bunch of money and then playing him out of position is sort of like buying a supercar and then driving it around on city streets. Or maybe in the winter. That’s all well and good for Lance Briggs, but I’m not sure the Cubs want to do that with the team’s biggest investment. As such, it’s been speculated since before the big deal went down that they’d move Soler in order to accommodate Heyward.
Inciarte might not be a big name for casual fans, but he could well be a big piece in what the Cubs have done so far this offseason. He’s a superb defender, ranking 3rd in UZR/150 among all center fielders with at least 200 innings logged there over the last two seasons. Over the course of his time in Arizona, he spent at least 547 innings at each of the three outfield positions, which makes him a nice fit for Joe Maddon’s philosophy.
Having elite defense at two outfield positions is a fair sight better than having mediocre gloves at the corners with a right fielder (even the best in the game) playing center. Following the 2015 season, The Fielding Bible — which uses a panel of 12 experts to determine the game’s best defenders — recognized Heyward in right and Inciarte as a multi-position (all three outfield spots) talent. For what it’s worth, Addison Russell finished second in the latter vote.
But we’re not really talking about a glove-only player here, either. Inciarte slashed .303/.338/.408 with 6 home runs and 21 stolen bases. While his 5.1% career walk rate leaves quite a bit to be desired, he balances it with an 11% strikeout rate. And that contact-heavy approach the Cubs have touted would benefit from the presence of a bat that makes contact at an 89.1% clip and that has only a 5.2% swinging strike rate. As a quick refresher, the Cubs had a team contact rate of 74.8% and a swinging strike rate of 11.8% in 2015.
If there’s a bit of a concern in Inciarte’s offensive game, it’s that the lefty batter had some pretty stark splits last season. The overall batting average was nice, but he hit only .229 against lefties in 2015. Now, he did post a .273 average against southpaws in 2014, a number that’s only 6 points lower than his production vs. righties. In two seasons, Inciarte has hit .250 with no homers against like-handed pitchers as compared to .309 with 10 bombs against righties. The lack of power isn’t a concern though, as this isn’t a guy you’re counting on to put the ball over the fence with any regularity.
So let’s see: better defense, better contact, team control for a number of years. What’s not to like? If we could view this potential move with blinders on, I think I’d be willing to pull the trigger in a heartbeat. But for such a swap to go down, it’s almost assuredly going to include a few other players. I’m not big on speculating when it comes to stuff like this, but it’s not difficult to imagine Albert Almora being involved. I mean, if the Cubs acquire a glove-first CF with several years of control, it kinda blocks AA’s path to The Show.
Perhaps that’s the “plus” part of the cost from DiCaro’s tweet. Given Atlanta’s apparent strategy to rebuild for the future, a still-maturing Almora might be a nice fit for them. Again, I’ve already gotten too far down the rabbit trail. Had you posed this scenario to me a week ago, I’d have probably said no way. But now that the Cubs have agreed to terms with Heyward, I’m more inclined to feel good about Inciarte.
Still, Soler-plus is a steep price, and one I’m sure many of you would balk at. Given my previously-stated skepticism of Soler’s ability to ever reach his full potential though, I can’t say I’d be against a trade. In the end, I trust the Cubs front office to make the right deal to benefit the team in both the immediate and distant future.