The Extreme Obviousness of the Cubs Adding a Center Fielder
I haven’t given it much attention because it was something I had been expecting since the end of the season, but I guess it’s worth noting the official impact of the Rafael Ortega non-tender at the end of last week.
With Ortega gone, the Cubs have one fewer player available who can play center field. To be sure, Ortega was never great out there, but he was capable. Almost average, depending on your metric of preference. That the Cubs were willing to non-tender him to open up a 40-man spot (and not be on the hook for a $1.7M projected arbitration salary) is further confirmation that they WILL be adding a center fielder this offseason, as Jed Hoyer has already strongly suggested.
Of the current outfielders on the 40-man roster, you have a three who can play center field if needed, but none of whom necessarily project as even average there (Christopher Morel, Nelson Velazquez, Ian Happ). You have another two who could definitely play solid center field… if they were healthy and big-league ready (Brennen Davis and Alexander Canario). You have one who I presume would not be preferred there, even if he could handle it (Seiya Suzuki). And you have one who hasn’t played above Low-A (Kevin Alcántara).
So, yeah. The Cubs will be adding a true center fielder this offseason. You can call that the unholiest of unholy locks. At other spots where we very much expect the Cubs to add, you could at least realistically say, ah, well, they could cover it up with these guys internally. Thus, it’s at least CONCEIVABLE that the Cubs don’t add at shortstop or first base or catcher or third base or in the rotation or in the bullpen. In center field, I just don’t see it as realistic.
As you probably know by now, the market in the center field is really limited. At the very high end, you have Brandon Nimmo, who figures to command a deal well in excess of nine figures, which may not be ideal for the Cubs who otherwise have strength in the farm system in the outfield.
The next tier are a couple guys to whom the Cubs have been connected, Cody Bellinger and Kevin Kiermaier, but the weakness of the market means the Cubs will be far from alone there. Still, I think that’s probably where the Cubs will be more aggressive, especially because each of Bellinger and Kiermaier have excellent gloves and lefty bats.
The second most aggressive? As we’ve talked about, it’s gotta be those Diamondbacks outfielders. Everyone knows they are overloaded with left-hitting center field types, and AT LEAST one more will be traded this offseason. Maybe that means a big league youngster like Alek Thomas or Jake McCarthy, or maybe it means a blocked Triple-A guy like Dominic Fletcher. I tend to think Daulton Varsho’s versatility and Corbin Carroll’s studness mean they won’t be moved. I also tend to think Pavin Smith isn’t really a center fielder. But those first three guys? They have to be EXTREMELY available, and I think the Cubs would be very well-advised to consider a deal there, while also pursuing Bellinger and/or Kiermaier.
Elsewhere in free agency and on the trade market, it’s just a whole lot of very perfect options. Jackie Bradley Jr. and Brett Phillips can’t hit. Tyler Naquin is probably pretty bad in center field now. Michael A. Taylor may not be made available by the Royals (and he’s a righty). Rafael Ortega – who can be brought back on a lesser deal – can hit righties but the defense is not great. And so on and so on.
We know the Cubs are going to do SOMETHING. My guess is the likely outcomes, roughly in order, are Bellinger or Kiermaier, a trade with the Diamondbacks, or a surprising-ish trade for someone we didn’t even know was available.