With five seasons in the books since the Cubs turned the corner from baseball’s first full-scale rebuild into contention, there are many components of the team upon which we can now look in retrospect. First, there’s been a fair share of success, and that came thanks to the positive turnout of many prospects who made the team’s farm system circa 2015 look downright scary. Heading into the 2015 season, there didn’t look to be a weak spot on the roster, and with the signing of Jason Heyward, one more year of Dexter Fowler, and the imminence of first round picks Kyle Schwarber and, to fill in for Fowler, Albert Almora Jr., the outfield looked especially dangerous for years to come. Even looking past Heyward’s notorious deal, though, it doesn’t take much to see that this has hardly manifested since Fowler’s departure has left the Cubs with a lackluster outfield as they’ve failed to convert down the stretch for two seasons in a row. While the lack of change in personnel makes it hard to believe that there’s any true change in production coming, the Cubs outfield is primed for a turnaround in 2020.
This is largely a result of the potential that still lies untapped in the personnel whom the Cubs look to employ to roam the outfield in the upcoming season. All four players that project to spend the most time in the Wrigley outfield this season are former first round picks: Schwarber, Ian Happ, Almora, and Heyward. While this doesn’t necessarily speak to their ability to produce, it does speak to their talent, and this talent appears more likely now than in seasons past to manifest itself at the major league level.
First, there’s Kyle Schwarber, the catcher-turned-left fielder with immense raw power and overall hitting ability. Schwarber ranked in the 97th percentile of all MLB hitters in average exit velocity and the 99th percentile in hard hit percentage in 2019. This speaks to the offensive production of which he’s capable, as the ability to hit the ball hard is among the strongest predictors of offensive success. Moreover, Schwarber posted his best wRC+ in 2019 since his rookie season, and this was over a full season, indicating a strong ability to sustain a high level of offensive performance moving forward.
Schwarber’s defense isn’t quite as promising, but this speaks more to his offensive capabilities than any defensive liability. Defensive ratings are more mixed on Schwarber’s performance as an outfielder, and this is thanks in part to his polar strengths and weaknesses in left field. Schwarber has poor range; he ranks in just the 2nd percentile of outs above average and the 21st percentile of outfielder jump, given that the outfield is not his natural position. His arm, however, is excellent, as he tied for third among all left fielders in outfield assists in 2019 after tying for second among all outfielders in baseball in 2018 with 11. This contributes to overall ratings that are far more positive than his range would indicate; his career 6.0 UZR/150 in left field in over 3,000 innings is a very positive mark with a considerable sample size. Considering that Schwarber has also gotten in better shape since debuting in 2015, there’s no reason to believe that this defensive performance will regress, and combined with his offensive potential, Schwarber looks poised to produce at career best levels on both sides of the ball in 2020. Oh, and Schwarber is still only 26 years old.
And who’s even younger than Schwarber? 25 year old Ian Happ, who is finally eyeing full playing time after starting last season in the minor leagues and joining the Major League team only in the second half of the season. Happ’s statistics are far more volatile, and with a lower quantity of playing time it’s more difficult to project his performance based upon anything he’s done in the major leagues thus far. What is telling is this: Happ’s shortened 2019 featured a wRC+ of 127, an .897 OPS and a strikeout rate of just 25% after two years with a sky-high strikeout rate over 30 percent. Even in a third of a season (58 games), this is highly promising after two seasons with copious strikeout totals that hindered Happ’s overall capability to produce at a high level. While Happ’s defensive ratings have been mixed, he rated positively in 2019, and has generally been better as an outfielder in his career than at any infield position. Therefore it’s likely that Happ provides at least average defense to supplement what should be strong offensive production, and it’s easy to believe that his 1.5 fWAR in just 58 games in 2019 can extrapolate to a full season worth at least three wins out of center field.
Joining Happ in the 25 and under club is Albert Almora Jr., who, while not capable of being the full-time asset in center field that the Cubs expected just a few years ago, remains a tool that can provide solid value if used appropriately. Almora’s main problem is hitting, and while he has flashed the potential to be an effective contact hitter, until he proves otherwise it’s difficult to believe that he will ever carve out a great deal of success at the plate. While an inability to play offense is a large liability, Almora still wields great defense and sprint speed, making him a valuable bench player who can pinch run and also play as an excellent defensive substitute. Assuming that Almora’s primary role is off the bench until he proves that he does have what it takes to be a full-time starter, he will certainly provide value as one of the better bench players in the game.
Joining him in the Cubs’ outfield reserve “juniors” club is new signing Steven Souza Jr., an interesting depth signing who did not play in 2019. Souza had a decent stint with the Rays, posting a very solid 3.8 fWAR in 2017, but is two years removed from that season without much of anything positive to show for it since. Souza’s defense is slightly below average, but if nothing else he wields decent sprint speed and some track record of success. So I’m going on the record to say he can’t be any worse as a depth signing than Daniel Descalso was.
Finally, to round out the starters, there’s Heyward. He’s lacked production since joining the Cubs but remains an excellent athlete and is still just 30 years old. While it’s difficult to believe that Heyward can actually translate his physical acumen into any great degree of success anymore, he has been successful in specific roles, especially in 2019, and if he is used exclusively to fill these roles moving forward Heyward can easily have his best season in a Cubs uniform. First, with regard to hitting, the Cubs can be more particular about the context of Heyward’s plate appearances to significantly improve his output offensively. To abridge this article from Bleacher Nation, Heyward has been known to struggle with lefties, and in the attempted use of Heyward as a leadoff hitter in 2019 he also had great difficulty. But batting against right handed pitchers in any spot in the lineup other than the leadoff spot, Heyward hit .303/.401/.520 with a 137 wRC+. While on the season as a whole Heyward’s 101 wRC+ indicated that he was a league average hitter, in the not-too-specific case of him hitting in any spot of the lineup but one, and against right-handed pitchers, Heyward was a full 37 percent better than league average as a hitter. Heyward receiving more plate appearances in this scenario in 2020 is not only possible, but probable, as Kris Bryant has now seemingly been designated as the leadoff hitter (as he should be) and the arrival of Souza allows the Cubs to platoon Heyward and give him fewer plate appearances against left-handed pitchers.
In addition to offensively, Heyward can benefit from greater consistency on defense as well. Heyward is a right fielder, and a very good one at that: his career 12.6 UZR/150 in right field is elite, and he has ranked in the top 15 in baseball in three of the last four years in defensive runs saved. While he has also had success in short stints in center field scattered throughout his career, Heyward is less effective there, and with the most innings played in center field of any season in his career in 2019, Heyward was actually a negative value defender according to UZR. Still, though, Heyward’s 5.3 UZR/150 in right field in 2019 was formidable, and consequently the Cubs will benefit greatly from keeping him anchored in right field in 2020. Heyward moved to center field in 2019 to accommodate Nick Castellanos, but he is now the primary right fielder, and the presence of Happ and Almora to play center field should mean that there is no need for Heyward to fill in there. Therefore, with the ability to spend all of his time in right field and in a more advantageous spot in the lineup, Heyward has the potential to be far more valuable in 2020.
The Cubs outfield, if deployed correctly next season, has a great deal of potential to be a valuable component of the lineup in 2020. With the potential shown by Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ and the situational success of Jason Heyward, the outfield has a lot more talent than they have shown in recent years, and Albert Almora Jr. and Steven Souza Jr. look to be a solid pair of reserves to back this up. While the Cubs outfield may not exactly warrant high praise given their production up to this point, next season they will almost certainly exceed expectations and prove to be an asset to a team that looks to capture an NL Central division with more parity than any other in baseball.