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March 2014

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Who Should Start in Left Field?

Written by , Posted in General

The Cubs outfield has strong odds of competing for the dubious distinction of being the worst offensive outfield in baseball. The three players guaranteed spots in the outfield, Ryan Sweeney, Nate Schierholtz and Justin Ruggiano, are platoon players at best. Presuming they are not traded or injured this season, Schierholtz and Sweeney will likely accumulate about 450 plate appearances each as the left handed parts of platoons in right and center fields, respectively. On a good team, the ideal role for each left handed outfielder would be as a bench piece.

There is one spot in the outfield that is at least not officially decided: left field. This late in spring training, though, only three real potential competitors for this role remain on the MLB spring training roster.

THE CONTENDERS:

The Incumbent:

Junior Lake:
2013 statistics: 254 PAs, .284/.332/.428, .335 wOBA, 109 wRC+, 6 HRs, 5.1% walk rate, 26.8 % strikeout rate, .377 BABIP, 1.2 fWAR
2014 ZiPS projection: 494 PAs, .252/.295/.380, .297 wOBA, 82 wRC+, 10 HRs, 4.9% walk rate, 28.1% strikeout rate, .338 BABIP, 0.2 fWAR

The Challengers:

Ryan Kalish:
DNP in 2013 due to injuries
2014 ZiPS projection: 227 PAs, .244/.305/.366, .298 wOBA, 83 wRC+, 5 HRs, 7.9% walk rate, 21.6% strikeout rate, .294 BABIP, 0.4 fWAR.

Emilio Bonifacio:
2013 statistics: 461 PAs, .243/.295/.331, .279 wOBA, 71 wRC+, 3 HRs, 6.5% walk rate, 22.3% strikeout rate, .312 BABIP, 0.6 fWAR
2014 ZiPS projection: 451 PAs, .258/.315/.339, .292 wOBA, 80 wRC+, 3 HRs, 7.5% walk rate, 19.3% strikeout rate, .319 BABIP, 0.7 fWAR

THE LIKELY OPENING DAY STARTER:

Junior Lake. I’m not a big fan of Lake, as I don’t think he can maintain that sort of BABIP with the extremely high strikeout rate and the extremely low walk rate. When you look at the sort of hitters who are able to maintain .350-plus BABIPs, they either walk a lot, strike out very little, or both, and combine that good eye with a ton of solid contact. I just don’t know why any pitcher would throw Lake anything straight or near the middle of the plate intentionally. And, as his ZiPS projection shows, even a relatively small drop to a BABIP in the .330s, which is still very high, turns Lake into a replacement level player.

But Lake’s strong post-Soriano trade call up, whether BABIP induced or not, and whether sustainable or not, was one of the Cubs’ few exciting events of the non-prospect variety in the second half of last season, and that is likely enough to get an extended look in the outfield to start the season.

I also think the Cubs like Ryan Kalish a lot, but with the outfield already featuring two left handed hitters needing platoon partners I think the Cubs prefer a right handed hitter in the final outfield spot. Kalish will likely be the first call up upon the almost undoubted eventual trade of Schierholtz or an injury to Schierholtz or Sweeney.

WHO I THINK SHOULD BE THE OPENING DAY STARTER

My choice for the Cubs’ opening day left fielder was actually optioned to Iowa some time ago: former first round draft pick Josh Vitters. I just have so many concerns about Lake’s approach at the plate, I’d rather give Vitters a second shot at the Majors to see if he can produce with the bat. The Cubs have moved Vitters off third base permanently, and should start in left fielder in Iowa to start the season. I expect that, barring injury, Vitters will get the next shot at the position if/when Lake’s poor approach catch up to him.

This is not to say that I think Vitters will succeed. I just think Vitters is less flawed and more interesting as a young player with promise than Lake.

  • Seymour Butts

    Interesting thought process Noah. I think Lakes 3 HR day likely got him the nod.
    Life is often all about timing.

    • Noah_I

      I’d say Lake would have been given the job independent of the big home run day, but yeah, his last couple of days allow the Cubs to at least publicly put that to rest. But if the Cubs’ plan was to start Lake in left field, a slow start in spring training shouldn’t have dissuaded them, just as Lake’s hot pat couple of days hasn’t convinced me he’s going to be able to hit consistently in the Majors.

  • Seymour Butts

    Interesting thought process Noah. I think Lakes 3 HR day likely got him the nod.
    Life is often all about timing.

    • Noah_I

      I’d say Lake would have been given the job independent of the big home run day, but yeah, his last couple of days allow the Cubs to at least publicly put that to rest. But if the Cubs’ plan was to start Lake in left field, a slow start in spring training shouldn’t have dissuaded them, just as Lake’s hot pat couple of days hasn’t convinced me he’s going to be able to hit consistently in the Majors.

  • Joe Aiello

    I routinely express my disappointment for my boyfriend, Josh Vitters, and his demotion on the podcast.

    • It is what it is.

    • Noah_I

      With Vitters not really being in the competition to start on opening day, I think he’s better off playing left field in Iowa every day. If the Cubs bring him up as the fifth outfielder, he’s playing maybe twice a week. It would be close to a complete admission that he’s never going to be a MLB regular. I’d prefer to keep him fresh, get him experience in the outfielder corners in Iowa, and give him an every day role when LF on the big league club opens up due to injuries or ineffectiveness.

      • PLCB3

        I don’t see the point in it. How much longer can he really spend in AAA? I see him as a career AAAA player.

      • Noah_I

        Vitters actually only has about 550 PAs (one full season’s worth) in Triple A. He came up to Iowa to start 2012, played 110 games there before being promoted to the Cubs, then played another 28 games there last season, spending most of the season on the DL.

        It’s a bit early to call Vitters a AAAA player, because he has not had the long stretch in the Majors, or the multiple short stretches that have all ended in failure. At this point he’s just a former prospect with enough talent to potentially turn himself back into a guy.

        As to the point in giving Vitters a shot in LF, it’s not that I think Vitters is going to succeed. I think his likely ceiling is as a less versatile Jeff Baker because Baker could fake it at 2B and Vitters can barely fake it at 3B.

        But I like Vitters’ possibility of surpassing that ceiling more than I like Lake’s. And I like Vitters’ bat more than I like Lake’s. And there’s really no one in the Cubs system, unless Brett Jackson just tears the cover off the ball in Iowa while posting a K rate south of 25%, that is going to be pushing for that left field job on the time frame I’m talking about.

        Just as a note of the time frame: I think Lake will get 45 to 60 days at the start of the season where he’ll get some leeway. If he performs poorly over those 45 to 60 days (so mid-May or early June), Vitters will then get the next shot. Vitters will also likely get 45 or 60 days. If Vitters fails, the options for the back half or 3rd of the season are really wide open, especially considering the trades, and could include trading Nate Schierholtz and putting Arismendy Alcantara in center field. I would not at all be surprised if the Cubs’ starting outfield on August 1 is Sweeney in left, Alcantara in center, Kalish in right. In this scenario, Baez would play 2B.

        By the way, this could actually be an ok second half offense (it definitely could be terrible as well, but there’s at least the legitimate possibility of it not being a terrible offense).

      • Bill Fell

        When did they start having the possibility of Alcantara playing outfield?

        *It is what it is.*

      • Noah_I

        It’s been discussed as a possibility for Alcantara for awhile, but more seriously since the Cubs started giving Baez some time at 2B in spring training. If Olt plays wells enough at 3B, Baez would move to 2B when he’s ready, shifting Alcantara out of the IF. There seems to be no concerns about Alcantara at least having the required tools to play CF.

      • Bill Fell

        Oh I have no doubt that he has the speed and athleticism to play CF I just never heard of it till now. Good stuff.

      • Eugene Debs

        Lake is going to be decent this year but will eventually settle into a 4th outfielder role next year and beyond.

        Vitters doesn’t seem to be high on the list of wanted players by the front office. I would not be surprised if they threw him into a minor trade or outright release him by years end.

      • Noah_I

        One additional note: the Cubs have used Vitters last minor league option for this season. If Vitters does not make the MLB active roster and stay on it after this season, he will be DFA’d, and it is likely he will not be a Cub anymore as some team will at least take a flier on a former number 3 pick.

      • PLCB3

        Can we send him down this year or no?

      • Noah_I

        Vitters has already been optioned to Iowa this year. So yes, they can move him up and down from Iowa as much as they wish this season. But, after this season, Vitters cannot be sent down to the minors without being removed from the 40 man roster, and as such would go through irrevocable waivers. It’s fairly unlikely he’d get through waivers unless he’s either just terrible in Triple A this season or suffers a severe injury.

      • PLCB3

        Oh. I was not aware that he was already sent down. Why did we send him down already and not at the end of camp? Joe, do you still have my mailbag question about rosters/waivers/trades/options etc.?

      • Noah_I

        As spring training wears on you have less split squad games, and you want your players to get more plate appearances per game, so there’s just less playing time to spread around in big league camp. Once you know someone isn’t going to make the big league roster, it’s better to send them down. The one caveat this year was Baez, who I firmly believe was kept up solely because Castro’s injury gave him the opportunity to see some MLB caliber pitching.

      • Joe Aiello

        I do. We’ll get to it soon.

  • Joe Aiello

    I routinely express my disappointment for my boyfriend, Josh Vitters, and his demotion on the podcast.

    • It is what it is.

    • Noah_I

      With Vitters not really being in the competition to start on opening day, I think he’s better off playing left field in Iowa every day. If the Cubs bring him up as the fifth outfielder, he’s playing maybe twice a week. It would be close to a complete admission that he’s never going to be a MLB regular. I’d prefer to keep him fresh, get him experience in the outfielder corners in Iowa, and give him an every day role when LF on the big league club opens up due to injuries or ineffectiveness.

      • AC0000000

        I don’t see the point in it. How much longer can he really spend in AAA? I see him as a career AAAA player.

      • Noah_I

        Vitters actually only has about 550 PAs (one full season’s worth) in Triple A. He came up to Iowa to start 2012, played 110 games there before being promoted to the Cubs, then played another 28 games there last season, spending most of the season on the DL.

        It’s a bit early to call Vitters a AAAA player, because he has not had the long stretch in the Majors, or the multiple short stretches that have all ended in failure. At this point he’s just a former prospect with enough talent to potentially turn himself back into a guy.

        As to the point in giving Vitters a shot in LF, it’s not that I think Vitters is going to succeed. I think his likely ceiling is as a less versatile Jeff Baker because Baker could fake it at 2B and Vitters can barely fake it at 3B.

        But I like Vitters’ possibility of surpassing that ceiling more than I like Lake’s. And I like Vitters’ bat more than I like Lake’s. And there’s really no one in the Cubs system, unless Brett Jackson just tears the cover off the ball in Iowa while posting a K rate south of 25%, that is going to be pushing for that left field job on the time frame I’m talking about.

        Just as a note of the time frame: I think Lake will get 45 to 60 days at the start of the season where he’ll get some leeway. If he performs poorly over those 45 to 60 days (so mid-May or early June), Vitters will then get the next shot. Vitters will also likely get 45 or 60 days. If Vitters fails, the options for the back half or 3rd of the season are really wide open, especially considering the trades, and could include trading Nate Schierholtz and putting Arismendy Alcantara in center field. I would not at all be surprised if the Cubs’ starting outfield on August 1 is Sweeney in left, Alcantara in center, Kalish in right. In this scenario, Baez would play 2B.

        By the way, this could actually be an ok second half offense (it definitely could be terrible as well, but there’s at least the legitimate possibility of it not being a terrible offense).

      • Bill Fell

        When did they start having the possibility of Alcantara playing outfield?

        *It is what it is.*

      • Noah_I

        It’s been discussed as a possibility for Alcantara for awhile, but more seriously since the Cubs started giving Baez some time at 2B in spring training. If Olt plays wells enough at 3B, Baez would move to 2B when he’s ready, shifting Alcantara out of the IF. There seems to be no concerns about Alcantara at least having the required tools to play CF.

      • Eugene Debs

        Lake is going to be decent this year but will eventually settle into a 4th outfielder role next year and beyond.

        Vitters doesn’t seem to be high on the list of wanted players by the front office. I would not be surprised if they threw him into a minor trade or outright release him by years end.

      • Noah_I

        One additional note: the Cubs have used Vitters last minor league option for this season. If Vitters does not make the MLB active roster and stay on it after this season, he will be DFA’d, and it is likely he will not be a Cub anymore as some team will at least take a flier on a former number 3 pick.

      • AC0000000

        Can we send him down this year or no?

      • Noah_I

        Vitters has already been optioned to Iowa this year. So yes, they can move him up and down from Iowa as much as they wish this season. But, after this season, Vitters cannot be sent down to the minors without being removed from the 40 man roster, and as such would go through irrevocable waivers. It’s fairly unlikely he’d get through waivers unless he’s either just terrible in Triple A this season or suffers a severe injury.

  • PLCB3

    What is Olt’s service time status? Any chance we can get an extra year and/or avoid Super-2 on him?

  • AC0000000

    What is Olt’s service time status? Any chance we can get an extra year and/or avoid Super-2 on him?