According to Buster Olney, the Chicago Cubs are open for business. They’re a rebuilding franchise with no real playoff aspirations and a bunch of interesting veterans who are free agent eligible at the end of the year, so it makes sense for them to make some present-for-future trades. The focus is likely going to be on their pitching, as Matt Garza and Scott Feldman will be two of the more common names you’ll hear talked about over the next month or so. However, there’s another Cub for sale that might be one of the more interesting players on the market: Nate Schierholtz.
Schierholtz has long been a bit of a favorite of mine, as he specializes in the skillset that I think is most often overlooked at the big league level. He’s basically a tweener, a guy with good corner outfield defense who probably can’t handle center field but doesn’t have the kind of power teams have historically associated with RF and LF. He’s been around for a while, and now 29-years-old, he has only hit 33 home runs in nearly 1,600 plate appearances, and he has a career slugging percentage of .426. That kind of moderate power profile generally gets overlooked when teams are looking for corner outfielders, even if the rest of the skillset makes the overall package pretty useful.
The Cubs took advantage of this market inefficiency over the winter, signing Schierholtz to a one year, $2.25 million deal after he was non-tendered by the Phillies. $2 million for a league average hitter who can play solid defense in both outfield corners made Schierholtz a nice bargain, and he’s paid off in a big way. For the first time in his career, Schierholtz is hitting for power, as 29 of his 55 hits have gone for extra bases and he has a .257 ISO. He hasn’t had to trade contact to get that power either, as his K% is just 13.9%, the lowest mark he’s posted since 2008 (and in a year that only included 81 PAs).
200 plate appearances isn’t anywhere near enough to say that this is “real” and that he’s going to keep posting a 136 wRC+, but both ZIPS and Steamer forecast him to remain roughly an average hitter going forward. He’s not any kind of star, but there’s real value in a league average hitter who plays pretty decent defense, and unlike most other players traded in the next month, Schierholtz won’t be a rental.
While he only signed a one year deal with the Cubs, he’s going to fall shy of the six years of service time needed to qualify as a free agent, so any team acquiring Schierholtz from Chicago will control his rights through next year as well. Certainly, his strong performance this year will earn him a raise in arbitration, but his modest career numbers and the fact that he’s been strictly platooned will keep his earnings down, as he won’t have gaudy counting stats and won’t be able to argue that he’s comparable to everyday players. At best, Schierholtz is probably looking at $5 or $6 million in arbitration, and he could very well come in under that.
And, despite the fact that the Cubs have used him solely against RHPs, it’s not entirely clear that Schierholtz couldn’t handle a larger workload. While 80% of his career plate appearances have come against RHPs, his splits actually aren’t that large.
Vs RHP: 1,284 PA, .271/.328/.438, .327 wOBA, 104 wRC+
Vs LHP: 313 PA, .278/.315/.378, .303 wOBA, 86 wRC+
Schierholtz has a platoon split, but it’s not drastically larger than every other left-handed batter, and we’re dealing with just 300 plate appearances against LHPs. He’s generally not used against them because it’s not very hard to find an RHB who can give you a bit more offense against lefties, but Schierholtz isn’t the kind of guy that you absolutely have to pinch-hit for any time a lefty reliever comes in to the game. He’s best used as a part-time player, but he wouldn’t fall apart if given more at-bats against LHPs.
Schierholtz is probably something in the range of +1.5 to +2.5 WAR player over a full season, he’s going to make roughly $1 million over the rest of the season and then ~$5 million or so next year, assuming he keeps hitting well. Any team acquiring him is looking at picking up roughly +3 WAR for $6 million in salary, which is a pretty nice little bargain, even for a guy who is more role player than savior.
And you know, sometimes these role players play like saviors for a little while. Schierholtz isn’t that different from Cody Ross — other than hitting from the other side of the plate — and we all remember what Ross did for the Giants after being claimed on waivers back in 2010. The randomness of small sample postseason baseball means that sometimes bit parts can look like superstars, and Schierholtz could end up making a larger impact than anyone expects.
While Olney mentioned the Royals and Pirates as perfect fits, given their right field problems, Schierholtz makes sense for a bunch of teams, including those not necessarily in the running for a playoff spot in 2013. Finding three good outfielders isn’t easy, and most teams will have an opening on their 2014 roster for a solid average player under team control at a minimal cost. Schierholtz won’t be the sexiest trade deadline acquisition, but he’s the kind of guy that can make more of a difference than his name value would suggest.