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.
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
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.
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.