Cubs Playing Time Battles: Hitters

We’ve started our annual Depth Chart Discussions, re-branded as Playing Time Battles for 2016. You can catch up on every team we’ve covered in the Playing Time Battles Summary post or following along using the Depth Chart Discussions tag.

This time yesterday, there really weren’t any Cubs playing time battles to discuss. There’s always the token catcher chat, and we’ll flesh that out below. Some words could have been spilled regarding utility men Chris Coghlan and Javier Baez. Overall, it wouldn’t have been an exciting post. With Dexter Fowler’s stunning agreement, there is a real battle to address.

Outfield

The Cubs now have four starting quality outfields – plus Baez, Arismendy Alcantera, and Matt Szczur – for three jobs. Jason Heyward will play just about every day he’s healthy. We should expect Fowler to play frequently too, leaving Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber fighting over left field.

Theo Epstein had some comments that should help us here. He said Heyward would spend more time in right field now. The key word is “more.” When Fowler isn’t in the lineup, Heyward probably slides to center – unless Baez is in the lineup. By allowing that Heyward will still play some center field, Epstein is hinting that Fowler may not be a 150 game starter. I’d still bet on him reaching 135 games.

For those of you assuming Epstein will now trade Soler for pitching, he says he won’t. GM’s often lie or misdirect, and you can be sure teams have called about Soler since the Fowler signing was announced. You can never say never when it comes to trading an extraneous asset. But I saw the sound bite, Epstein was quite convincing about his desire to hang onto this deep outfield.

That means Soler and Schwarber take a big downgrade in value. It doesn’t sound as though a stint in the minors is in the cards for either player, but it can’t be ruled out – especially for Schwarber. Based on the way last season ended, I’d bet on Schwarber starting against most righties with Soler taking the lefties. The club now has more reason to use Schwarber behind the plate in an effort to get his bat into the lineup.

Fantasy owners can prepare to howl. It doesn’t seem like either player will start more than 75 percent of the time. We’ll probably see even less of them since Baez will get his share of reps too in a super utility role. If injuries crop up, Ben Zobrist may also slide into the outfield with Baez starting at second base.

Top of the Lineup

The best leadoff hitters reach base at a high clip, and they have a little bit of speed too. Chicago now has signed three players who fit this profile over the winter. Fowler, Heyward, and Zobrist all have some pop too. Their career OBPs are .363, .353, and .355 respectively. However, Fowler had the lowest of the trio in 2015, and he’s generally regarded as the least valuable hitter of the trio.

On a normal roster, you could just bat them first through third in any order you desire. Two are switch-hitters while Heyward bats lefty. On the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant need to be near the top too. While on the subject of OBP, Rizzo has a career .356 rate with a .387 OBP over the last two seasons. Bryant debuted with a .369 OBP. These guys are reaching base even more than the table setters. Schwarber did well too with a .355 OBP.

We can probably safely assume that two of Fowler, Heyward, and Zobrist will bat ahead of Rizzo and Bryant. Since Joe Maddon is managing the team, don’t count on there being a set top of the order until sometime in May. Any OBP threat batting at the top of this lineup should easily eclipse 100 runs. Anyone batting further down in the order could pile up strong RBI totals. I’d expect to see more station-to-station ball. You don’t want to make outs on the base paths with this lineup.

I’m confident Heyward will probably bat first or second. He’s being paid to do it. Fowler and Zobrist seem to have even odds to grab the other job. There’s also a chance Heyward could bat fifth in a run producing role. The more I look at it, the less certain I become.

Catcher

The Cubs don’t have your typical catcher platoon with a decent starter and scrubby Sunday guy. Miguel Montero is a solid backstop who will start against most righties. Unfortunately, the Fowler signing may devalue Montero. He was a sneaky good veteran sleeper in my eyes.

With fewer outfield opportunities, I now foresee Schwarber taking maybe 15 percent of the starts versus righties. It’s possible this is where Schwarber will get his work with facing lefties, or maybe they just divvy everything up by pitcher. In any event, I’m pretty sure Schwarber will catch more than he was going to just a day ago. The good news for keeper owners – he should get his 20 games for eligibility in all formats.

David Ross used to be an excellent platoon bat, but those days are behind him. He’s the veteran mentor of a young team. I wouldn’t count on seeing him very often. He was Jon Lester’s personal catcher last season. They may want to shake Lester of that crutch. Waiting in the wings is the catcher of the future – Willson Contreras. He’ll only see action if Montero hits the disabled list.



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jdbolick
Member

Fowler’s signing is unquestionably bad news for Soler, but it’s probably not as bad as it would initially seem. Fowler has missed an average of thirty games per season over his career, so it’s incredibly unlikely that he will repeat last season’s playing time. He’s also not very good against right-handed pitching, therefore it would make sense to use Schwarber-Heyward-Soler as much against RHPs as is defensibly tolerable. I agree that Fowler is still going to play the majority of the time against RHPs, but I do expect him to sit against them more often.