Dexter Fowler became a star the day he took the field as the Cubs center fielder Opening Night in 2015. After finishing in the Top 25 in OBP (.389) and WAR (2.6) for the second half of the season, Cubs fans finally realized what it felt like to have a quality leadoff hitter. In 2016 he continued to improve, having an All-Star season that saw him finish top 15 in OBP (.393) and BsR* (6.2), a 4.7 WAR season, and the cherry on top of the sundae: World Series champ.
After a great two-year stint in Chicago, Dexter packed up and took his talents South to the rival St. Louis Cardinals (cue: The Imperial March) on a 5-year deal. Let’s discuss what the Cubs need to do to resemble a chance to repeat without Fowler.
Let’s look at the Cubs’ two options for center field next year: Albert Almora and Jon Jay. Almora and Jay are okay, but they aren’t Dexter Fowler: Fangraph’s Steamers has them projected at a combined 1.0 WAR.
Luckily for the Cubs they aren’t completely reliant on a Jay/Almora platoon, thanks to the brilliance of Theo Epstein. Jon Jay is a career average defender and his bat is nothing to show for; Almora has the potential to be a plus-defender but with his abysmal BB%, he might need some time in AAA to develop some patience at the plate. Which leads me to my next question: If you’re going to be putting an average to below average bat in CF, why wouldn’t you go with the superior defender, Jason Heyward?
|Gold Glove Caliber||+15|
|Jason Heyward (by position)||UZR/150|
|Right Field Career||+18.9|
|Center Field Career (404 Inn.)||+19.2|
|2016 Center Field||+26.9|
|2016 Right Field||+21.6|
UZR/150 measures how many runs saved a player would have over the course of 150 games played at that position in a season. Jason Heyward is a proven Gold Glover in RF; his metrics show that he could also be a Gold Glover in CF. Which gets me to my next point…
Kyle Schwarber needs to play every day and with the emergence of Willson Contreras at catcher, he’s going to see most action in left field. Needless to say, Schwarber’s defensive range is sub-par, so you need a CF that can cover a lot of ground. Jason Heyward fits the bill and if he progresses anywhere near his career norms on offense, he will be extremely valuable in center.
We all know that Joe Maddon aka “the Mad Scientist” likes to tinker his lineups so who we see cycle in right field, third base, and second base will most likely be Kris Bryant (RF and 3B), Ben Zobrist (2B and RF), Javier Baez (2B and 3B). Zobrist has logged over 2,400 innings in right field so he could see a healthy amount of playing time out there, but we all know with his age and comfort level he would prefer second. Javy is Javy and will play top notch defense anywhere on the diamond. That leaves KB as a possible candidate to see a lot of time in the outfield.
Offensively speaking, the lead-off transition becomes a bit trickier. On paper, Zobrist looks like the easy choice: switch hitter with a career .358 OBP (.386 in 2016). But after digging a little deeper, Zobrist’s 2016 OBP of .333 while batting leadoff would’ve put him in the same category of Denard Span. Unfortunately, that’s more the career norm for Ben rather an anomaly, as his career average OBP is .330 batting leadoff complimented with a below average wOBA of .313.
I think this season there will be more creativity on Maddon’s part. With Zobrist leading off in 2016, the Cubs were only a .500 ball club. What about Kyle Schwarber? Maybe he can lead off versus righties (.272/.392/.544), but until his splits improve versus lefties (.143/.213/.268) can you trust him to lead off full-time?
Depending on how the first month of the season goes, a possible leadoff option sometime this season is their (future) Gold Glove centerfielder: Jason Heyward. Before you slam your computer shut and send me hate mail, hear me out. Heyward’s career splits (.275/.352/.420) in the leadoff spot would have ranked him as a Top 10 leadoff hitter this past season. The BB% and K% are both above average at 9.8% and 16.8%, respectively. I’m not saying Jason Heyward is the greatest leadoff option in the league, I’m saying the stats say he might have the best chance at continued success opening the ballgame.
After a much-discussed swing change, Heyward hasn’t had the best spring training (.167/.262/.596). The critics were out and about and the league has deemed him a bust and a failed deal. Not so fast. From March 14 to March 30, Heyward has slashed a cool .290/.387 (includes a 2-hit game against Japan, which technically doesn’t count towards his spring stats). I know I know, it’s Spring Training but that line looks a lot like his career leadoff splits.
Unfortunately for the Cubs, Dexter Fowler is irreplaceable; that type of presence in the batter’s box doesn’t grow on trees and now the Cardinals hold two of the best leadoff men from the 2016 season, Fowler and Matt Carpenter (.271/.393/.449). This doesn’t mean that they can’t try to fill the gaps he left. Defensively they can do so and potentially even save runs. I am not predicting that Heyward is the Opening Night leadoff man come April 2, but I am predicting that at some point this season if his bat comes alive that he will get some time there. If he is 2016 Heyward, then feel free to send me “I told you so” emails all year.
*BsR serves as the base running component for the WAR calculation; rates a player based on all base running statistics (i.e. stolen bases, taxing extra bases, being thrown out on the bases, etc.). For reference, Dexter Fowler’s BsR of 6.2 puts him in the “Great” category and a score of 0 is “Average”
Any questions or comments? Feel free to shoot me an email: Kevin.Moore@nextlevelballplayer.com