The Chicago Cubs clearly had two primary areas in need of improvement at the beginning of this offseason: starting pitching and center field. The word was that the Cubs were in on David Price, but we know that didn’t happen, and so instead the Cubs went with a more cost-effective choice in John Lackey.
For the rest of the Cubs offseason, that means two things. For one, the rotation appears to be complete. It’s now deeper than last year’s, still has two aces at the top, and doesn’t have an obvious hole. Of course, if something came up, the Cubs could still improve, but no longer does the need exist for another starter, of any caliber. What the Lackey move means, also, is that the Cubs have some extra money to spend in the outfield. If they were in on Price, that means they were prepared to spend somewhere in the range of $200 million, and on Lackey, they spent just $34 million.
It should come as no surprise that talks have turned to Jason Heyward.
Patrick Mooney of CSNChicago reported that “the Cubs have envisioned Jason Heyward batting leadoff and playing center at Wrigley Field” and that they’ve “had Heyward on their radar for a long time.” Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times asked general manager Jed Hoyer about the financial implications of going after a top outfielder, and Hoyer responded that “We have some available resources. I think that much is clear.” Jesse Rogers of ESPN thinks it’s more likely the Cubs wind up with Heyward than Dexter Fowler. All of this has come out within the last 24 hours.
In addition, the Cubs are bidding against the rival St. Louis Cardinals, and the effects of the Cubs potentially acquiring Heyward would be two-fold, in that it would also mean the Cardinals weren’t acquiring him.
Clearly, the pieces are in place here. Heyward to the Cubs, on the surface, makes a great deal of sense. Theo Epstein stated back in October the desire to improve the team’s outfield defense, and Heyward has rightfully earned a reputation as an excellent defender. The interesting part, though, is that the Cubs are clearly interested in Heyward as a center fielder, given the existence of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler in the corners, and 97% of Heyward’s major league innings have come in right field. He’s started just 30 games in center field, and his price tag is going to be somewhere around $200 million. That’s a significant investment to make when you’re planning to play a guy in unfamiliar territory. It’s a significant investment no matter where you’re planning to play him, but it might be viewed as especially risky given the circumstance.
But should it be?
Anecdotally, signs point to confidence towards Heyward in center field. Despite receiving just 30 regular season starts in center field, Heyward got four postseason starts in center in Atlanta, and two in St. Louis, perhaps indicating a greater level of trust in Heyward’s ability in center than what might otherwise be assumed. When Carson Cistulli searched for baseball’s most well-rounded player, the answer in both instances was ultimately Heyward, and trailing Heyward in each table were a number of the game’s best center fielders, such as Lorenzo Cain, A.J. Pollock, Carlos Gomez and Mookie Betts.
Of course, we want more than just anecdotes. Since Heyward entered the league in 2010, he’s racked up as much defensive value as anyone, nearly all of which has come from his range. Heyward has consistently graded out as something like a +2o run defender in right field, and the difference in the positional adjustment between right field and center field is 10 runs. Even if Heyward were to struggle in his transition, the elite level he’s established in right field would seem to indicate that he’s more than capable of making the transition while still providing plus defense in center.
Were Heyward able to maintain a +10 run per year pace in center field, accruing similar defense value as to what he’s previously established, people would no longer question the bat. Heyward’s ~120 wRC+ is just fine in right field as it is, but in center, it would be elite. Heyward is a significantly better offensive player at this stage in his career than someone like Adam Jones, and Jones’ bat seems to generally be viewed as a plus, for a center fielder. In center field, the only guys with a clear advantage over Heyward, offensively, would be Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen. It’s easier to find someone who can handle right field than it is center field, and so, in a vacuum, Heyward as a center fielder would give his team value in the way of flexibility.
Looking for some potential comps, I searched back to 2002, as far as our defensive data goes, and looked for corner outfielders who accrued more than 15 defensive runs saved in a single season in right field before switching to center field the next season. In 2007, a young Shane Victorino racked up 16 DRS playing every day in right field, and was still a +10 defender the next season in center. Ichiro didn’t experience quite the same success, but fared just fine in his +5 season in center field in 2007. Alex Rios is perhaps Heyward’s best comp, defensively, as both were likely forced to the corner originally due to their height. Heyward and Rios both stand 6-foot-5, and Drew Fairservice found that Rios was just the second player who stood 6’5 or taller to patrol center field for a full season when he wondered about Heyward’s future as a potential center fielder last season. Rios was a +10 defender over his first ~2,500 innings in center field, before declining in his age-30 season. For Heyward, that’s still five years away, and even if a team signed him to play center field in 2016, he wouldn’t be locked into the position forever.
The comps look fine, and during Heyward’s 233 innings in center thus far, he hasn’t yet committed an error, and the metrics think he’s saved a couple runs. He can still do this in center, after all:
Maybe this won’t matter. Maybe Heyward ends up in right field anyway, where he has the potential to be a bargain despite the massive chunk of change it will cost to obtain him. But if your team signs Heyward to play center field, fret not about the lack of experience. Jason Heyward is going to be Jason Heyward, wherever he plays.
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