Our reviews of the 2019 Cubs have previously covered the solid starting staff, the shaky bullpen, and the strong yet injury-weakened infield. The final part of Chicago’s roster that needs to be examined is the outfield, a unit that started the season slowly before finishing strong behind a key mid-season acquisition.
The Cubs outfield could look much different in 2020 than it did in 2019, as Nick Castellanos is not likely to return and every outfielder still under contract has been mentioned in trade rumors this offseason. Before those changes are made, let’s take look at what happened last season.
Kyle Schwarber rolled out of the gate like a kid learning to drive stick in a field, then used his stick to drive the ball all over the field in the second half. War Bear posted a career-high .871 OPS with 38 homers in 155 games played and his solid defense continued its steady improvement since being moved from behind the plate in 2015.
Jason Heyward saw his offensive numbers rebound from the struggles of the last few seasons, posting a .772 OPS that was his highest in a Cubs uniform. His 21 homers were the most he’s hit since 2011 and marked only the second time in 10 seasons that he’s eclipsed 14 dingers. His production suffered terribly from a stint in the leadoff spot that lasted far longer than it should have, dragging his overall stats down in the process.
Heyward’s defense suffered as a result of moving to center to accommodate Castellanos in right, but he was still an above-average fielder. Castellanos was a revelation when he came over at the trade deadline, hitting .321 with 16 homers and a 1.002 OPS in 51 games for Chicago. His defense was considerably better than his past reputation had held and he and Schwarber were the bright spots in an injury-ravaged September offense.
What didn’t work
Albert Almora Jr. had a rough year in 2019, posting a .651 OPS in 130 games played before eventually getting demoted to Iowa. His defense in center was even rated the second worst in baseball according to the SABR Defensive Index. It all added up to a -0.7 WAR, which meant he was far less valuable than a replacement level player in 2019.
Ian Happ was expected to get significant playing time in center, but he was assigned to Triple-A out of spring training and stayed there for a majority of the season. When he actually was called up to the majors for the final two months, he preformed well. The switch-hitting Happ hit 11 homers and produced an .898 OPS in 156 plate appearances.
With only four outfielders under contract for 2020, the Cubs could use more depth. A center fielder with a contact-heavy approach who could possibly lead off would be useful, as would another hitter with some pop in his bat to replicate the slugging Castellanos brought to the lineup.
Will the Cubs try to bring back the free agent Castellanos? He has expressed an interest in returning, but budget concerns and roster construction issues may prevent it. Could Schwarber or Happ be used as pieces in a trade with an American League team that could DH them for additional flexibility? Both have value, it’s just a matter of what other teams might be willing to trade for it.
Could the Cubs find a team willing to take a portion of Heyward’s remaining contract to ease the budget crunch? It could mean including adding another valuable piece to make the money palatable, though J-Hey’s bounce-back year makes it a bit more plausible. Will Chicago move on from Almora or give him one more year? The Cubs are reportedly leaning toward keeping him, so starting the year in Triple-A might be an option.
While several members of the outfield improved their play in 2019, I would not expect the same group to take the field in 2020. Keeping Schwarber and giving Happ a longer look seem like reasonable non-moves for the front office to make, especially if cost is a concern. They could also look to pick up a centerfielder like Shogo Akiyama on a relatively cheap deal in order to move Heyward back to right on an everyday basis.
Unless there’s a surprising move to trade either Heyward or Schwarber, expect the outfield to look similar to what it did this past season. Continued improvement from the latter, combined with better deployment of Heyward and a bounceback from Almora could help to account for the loss of Castellanos. Whether the Cubs make deals or stand pat, they’re going to need their decisions to work out..
Thus ends our review of the 2019 Cubs season. There were some bright spots, but too many things went wrong with each facet of the team for them to overcome. An 84-win campaign is no longer acceptable on the North Side, which is why we should expect a much different team to take the field in 2020.
Or at least a slightly different team. We hope.