Last Tuesday, I examined infielders the Cubs could potentially bring in at a bargain for the 2012 season. Today I’ll turn my attention to the outfield, which is a tricky area for the Cubs. Alfonso Soriano’s monstrosity of an $18 million per year contract is probably stuck in left field most days. If Soriano has another season where he posts an OBP below .300, the Cubs might make him a platoon player for the final two years of that contract or just eat the contract by releasing Soriano or trading him, but it’s unlikely they’ll do it in 2012. The Cubs still have Marlon Byrd, whose been a solid addition and a bargain contractually, but is 34 years old and isn’t going to get any better or be around when the Cubs are ready to be competitive. Top prospect Brett Jackson is probably ready to get called up to the Majors and become the Cubs starting CF for the next several years, but it’s also reported that the Red Sox might be fighting hard to get Brett Jackson as compensation for Theo Epstein (at the time I’m writing this, the compensation issue hasn’t been determined, although it clearly might by the time this is posted on Tuesday). So the Cubs might be lining up an outfield of Soriano in left, Jackson in center and Byrd in right, or Brett Jackson might be a member of the Boston Red Sox next year.
But Byrd’s solid performance plus only having one year remaining on a pretty team friendly contract make him the most likely position player for the Cubs to trade for any real value this offseason. If that’s the case, or if the Cubs lost Brett Jackson in compensation for Epstein, the Cubs really have two reasonable ways they can go to fill empty spots in the OF: first, they could give Tyler Colvin an extended look this season and see if he can be an everyday major leaguer. I doubt that Colvin can, as he strikes out too much and does not walk enough, but I’d be perfectly fine with this plan. No one else in the Cubs’ system, though, is really ready to take that role. Tony Campana is not an everyday starter, while the players who have the talent to be starting caliber OFs in the majors (Jae Hoon Ha, Matt Szczur and Reggie Golden head up that list) are not anywhere near ready for the Show.
The second choice is to fill that role cheaply with a bargain player. Just as a reminder, the standards I’m using for bargain free agents are: (1) they have to be 30 or under on opening day; (2) they must have posted a 2.0 or higher fWAR season at some point in their career; and (3) they have suffered either a performance downturn, injuries or a combination of both that have decreased their value to the point they are likely looking at one year contracts. Only two outfielders fit all of my criteria, both of whom are former All Stars. They are also former center fielders who either probably cannot handle center field anymore due to injuries, or never should have been out there in the first place. And one used to be considered one of the best players in baseball.
Most of you probably know one of the players I’m referring to is Grady Sizemore. In his first four full seasons in the Majors from 2005 in 2008, Sizemore posted an insane 27.4 fWAR. He hit for average, walked, hit for power, stole bases and was one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. Sizemore was only 26 years old at the end of the 2008 season, and looked like he may have been the best young CF since Ken Griffey, Jr.
Since the start of 2009, however, Sizemore’s career has been derailed by injuries. He has only played in 210 games over the past three seasons, and has struggled when he has played, accumulating just 1.9 fWAR since the start of 2009. A team also shouldn’t expect Grady Sizemore to play center field full time if they want him to stay healthy.
But if Sizemore, who will be 29 on opening day 2012, can get anything close to his former offensive prowess back and even play average defense in right field, he could be an excellent player again. Cleveland does have an $8.5 million option with a $500K buy out on Sizemore for next season. Under most circumstances, a team would be very unlikely to pick up an option that size on a player who has been as injured as Sizemore has been over the past three seasons. But Sizemore might still be the face of Cleveland’s organization, and was probably the best all around everyday player the Indians had since Manny Ramirez. It’s also possible that the Indians might try and see if they can bring Sizemore back at a reduced rate. If the Indians decide it’s time to cut ties, though, Sizemore could be quite cheap. If that is the case, it would at the least be very intriguing to see if Sizemore can get healthy and back to a semblance of his old self in a Cubs uniform.
The other player is Braves outfielder Nate McLouth. After three years of replacement level to average performance, McLouth broke out big time with the Pirates in 2008, posting a 3.9 fWAR when batting .276/.356/.497, good for a .369 wOBA, with 26 HRs out of centerfield. In 2009, McLouth posted a strong 3.4 fWAR in a season he split between the Pirates and Braves.
Since the start of 2010, though, McLouth has been pretty close to an unmitigated disaster. McLouth has always been a bad defensive center fielder, and that has not improved with age. Over the past two seasons, though, McLouth has both been injured, playing in just 166 games, and ineffective at the plate, posting a .283 wOBA in 2010 and .306 in 2011. In all, McLouth has accumulated -1.0 fWAR over the last two seasons. Yes folks, you’re reading that right, he’s been worse than a replacement player for the last two seasons. But, as described above, he did show an ability to both get on base at a decent clip and hit for power in the not too distant past. If he can get healthy and rediscover his offensive abilities, McLouth could be valuable. Moreover, McLouth’s struggles combined with the fact that he never had the same reputation Sizemore had could make him extremely inexpensive.
With that said, how interested the Cubs should be in either Sizemore or McLouth depends heavily on what happens this offseason. Does Brett Jackson get sent to Boston for Theo? Because outside of Brett Jackson, the Cubs don’t have any outfielders in the higher levels of the minor leagues who have pretty clear futures as Major League starters. Do the Cubs want to trade Marlon Byrd in the offseason, or do they think he will have more value midseason? Do the Cubs want to give Tyler Colvin a shot to be an everyday outfielder? Depending on the answers to these questions, the Cubs may have at least one hole in the outfield heading into the season. I’d rather see the Cubs fill those holes with players with the potential upside of Grady Sizemore and Nate McLouth than have Tony Campana in the starting lineup 120 times next season.
Next week I’ll conclude this series by looking at bargain pitchers. While there are not any pitchers you could predict for the front of the rotation here, there are some potential middle to the back end of the rotation types, plus a former All Star closer available.