Two Simple Ways Cubs Can Clarify ‘Muddy’ Outfield Situation

The Cubs have six primary outfielders in camp at the moment, which is probably one too many even with Andrelton Simmons on the shelf and two extra roster spots for the first few weeks of the season. I’m not saying Simmons is an outfielder, of course, just that the team’s infield depth means they could kick the can down the road on another positional group for a little while.

That’s happened all too frequently over the past several years as either the manager or the front office clung far too long to players and/or concepts that simply weren’t working. Just look at the leadoff spot, where Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Albert Almora Jr. all saw far too much time before changes were made. Believe it or not, Almora has more career plate appearances as the leadoff hitter (306) than in any other spot in the order.

Joe Maddon and Theo Epstein are gone and it’s clear from Jed Hoyer’s moves at the deadline that baseball operations are perhaps less emotionally driven than before, but another very difficult decision might be required to clean up the roster.

“It’s still a little muddy,” David Ross told the media Wednesday. “The outfield is still taking shape. How guys continue to get their legs under them, have the at-bats. Some of this roster stuff sometimes comes down to options and who has what left from that standpoint.”

There are no questions about Seiya Suzuki‘s spot on the roster after he signed a five-year, $85 million deal to be the everyday right fielder. His homer in Wednesday’s win displayed both power and an ability to adjust on the fly, something Cubs hitters haven’t been lauded for in the past. Even with the likelihood that he’ll need to continue acclimating to the MLB game, Suzuki isn’t going anywhere.

Clint Frazier likewise homered in Wednesday’s game and has compiled a .316 batting average while showing off the elite bat speed that had Yankees fans thinking he was the next big thing. Fallout from a concussion led to depth perception issues that affected both his play and his quality of life throughout the 2021 season before eventually leading to him being designated for assignment.

The Cubs picked Frazier up with a $1.5 million guarantee that maxes out at $2.5 with potential incentives, plus he’s still under club control for two more years. At just 27 years old and with the potential to be an everyday left fielder/DH, he’s exactly the kind of player the Cubs need on the roster.

Ian Happ is kind of in a similar boat when it comes to high expectations and potential that have been clouded by injury, but he’s also earning a little more money and may not have trade value for a while yet. The Cubs will DH him frequently in the early going as he continues to work back from an offseason elbow cleanup procedure, so he and Frazier are essentially two sides of the same coin.

That’s the more certain part, now we get to what the Cubs do with the rest of the outfield picture.

The simplest solution is the one that is also most difficult for the front office to make, and that is to DFA Jason Heyward. The unquestioned leader of the team, both in the clubhouse and on the payroll, Heyward is coming off the worst performance of his career as he enters his age-32 season. He’s also being pushed to center field, where he is not nearly as effective as he has been in right.

Though he has the advantage of being a left-handed hitter, Heyward’s numbers were worse against righties last year and were far worse than Rafael Ortega posted. Between the lefty-batting Ortega and the right-handed Michael Hermosillo, the Cubs have a much more dynamic platoon duo with a great deal more upside than Heyward.

And while I’m big on leadership and having clubhouse mentors around for younger players, you have to consider whether there’s really enough intrinsic value there to make up for the lack of production. As great as it would be to have someone to take Brennen Davis under his wing, the top prospect’s eventual ascension just makes Heyward’s spot that much more precarious.

The final topic with Heyward is the cost, which many hold up as a reason that he’ll have to stay and get playing time. But if he’s patrolling center and not getting as many PAs, even if all of them are against righties, it’s entirely possible he’ll be a negative-WAR player. From a purely objective point of view, that would mean it’s actually better to pay him not to play.

There’s even a solid emotional incentive to cutting Heyward loose, which is that he’d be able to choose his new team. Between his high salary, no-trade clause, and diminished production, the Cubs aren’t getting anything in return for him even if he allows it. Designating him for assignment means he’ll still get paid his full salary for the next two years and another team only needs to pay him the league minimum. Now his leadership and professionalism suddenly become a huge boon, perhaps for a contender looking for that little edge.

But let’s say the Cubs aren’t willing to rip the band-aid off at this point and would prefer to clear things up another way. Neither Ortega nor Hermosillo has minor league options available, so they’d likewise have to be DFA’d and almost certainly lost to another team. Unlike Heyward, though, there is at least the possibility of trading one of them for a solid return.

Assuming the Cubs want to use Heyward in a platoon, Ortega becomes the most likely of the two extra outfielders to be moved. That opens up all kinds of possibilities, particularly with a Padres team that needs depth in center and has similar positional redundancies at catcher and first base. Hey, have the Cubs ever made a deal with the Pads involving a catcher, and have there been trade rumors surrounding Chicago’s catching situation?

Yes on both counts, and that’s before you add the idea that the Cubs have been mentioned as a potential match with San Diego on a deal for Eric Hosmer. That would open up a whole new can of worms, but Dennis Lin of The Athletic wrote that the Padres are still trying to work something out on that front.

Relatively speaking, the easiest solution could be another trade or two. League sources say the Padres are open to discussing their catchers, with four on their 40-man roster, and some of their starting pitching depth. And with Luke Voit, Profar and Beaty all options at first base, San Diego continues to explore potential trades involving Eric Hosmer.

With just a week to go before Opening Day and the outfield still a little too crowded for comfort, there are two simple ways the Cubs could clear things up in a hurry. Well, the aforementioned trade might not be quite as simple if you keep pulling on that string, but would at least be a means to an end. Moving on from Heyward would be much easier in terms of practicality.

In the end, though, I don’t think the Cubs will do what is easiest and what makes the most sense. It won’t surprise me at all if they do indeed find a way to kick the can a little further, at which point they’ll either end up parting ways with not-Heyward or putting someone else on the IL to buy another two weeks or so.

Ed. note: Though it’s perhaps implied above, I want to make very clear that I appreciate what Heyward has meant to the Cubs and the City of Chicago over the last several years. Were the Cubs in a different competitive situation and were roster spots easier to come by, I believe they’d be foolish to jettison him and lose his leadership. As currently constructed, however, this roster simply isn’t able to take advantage of those qualities that make Heyward more than just what’s on the back of his baseball card.

I wrote then they signed him that Heyward was a glue guy whose contributions to the team would be greater than his statistical production and I believe history proves me right on that front. But that was when he was surrounded by enough talent to win a World Series, something that is no longer the case on the North Side. 

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