On paper, it’s hard to see Jon Jay as any sort of upgrade for the defending World Champion Chicago Cubs. Prior to the one-year, $8-million agreement between Jay and the club, our Depth Chart projections featured Jason Heyward as the recipient of the majority of the team’s center-field plate appearances, with Kyle Schwarber receiving most of the time in left, Ben Zobrist in right, and Jorge Soler serving as a backup at each of the latter two positions. Adding Jay, moving Heyward from center to right, giving Zobrist the majority of time at second base, and forecasting fewer plate appearances for Javier Baez (who had appeared as the starting second baseman on the depth charts previous to the acquisition of Jay) does little to help Chicago’s projections. That said, the acquisition probably does have benefit for the 2017 club — even if the abundance of outfielders ultimately serves to diminish the trade value both of Soler and Albert Almora.
Despite his otherworldly defense in right field, Heyward doesn’t seem to be an ideal fit in center. While he can handle the position, the Cubs have appeared unwilling to make him the starter there. They re-signed Dexter Fowler to avoid that scenario this past year and were likely always going to find a replacement for Fowler this offseason. The addition of Jay gives them the opportunity to deploy a platoon in center now, with Jay handling the lefty side of things and a 23-year-old Almora taking a couple hundred plate appearances from the right. That’s a sensible solution. As sensible as it is, though, some questions remain regarding the Cubs outfield.
The first question is this: why Jon Jay? The 31-year-old center fielder produced a league-average .291/.339/.389 line for San Diego last year in just 373 plate appearances after a broken forearm caused Jay to miss all of July and August. He didn’t really hit at all after returning from the injury in September, but it’s tough to extract much of anything from a month of plate appearances. That 2016 campaign followed a 2015 during which he hit just .210/.306/.257, producing a 57 wRC+ while hampered with wrist issues throughout the season.
Jay’s offensive production is entirely dependent on a combination of his batted-ball success and his butt. His power isn’t really a factor (he’s produced an ISO under .100 over the course of his career), and he’s also walked at a below-average rate. His contact skills are decent, although he did strike out in more than 20% of his plate appearances this past season. When Jay has put together above-average offensive seasons — as he did in four of his first five years with the Cardinals — it has come largely on the strength of a BABIP in excess of .340. In the one average season he produced, his BABIP was .325. He supplements the BABIP with an ability to get his body in the way of pitches. Over the last five seasons, only Shin-Soo Choo, Starling Marte, and new teammate Anthony Rizzo have been hit by more pitches. On defense, Jay’s weak arm and merely okay range render him about average defensively in center. Entering his age-32 season, he isn’t likely to improve in either capacity.
Overall, our projections call for Jay to produce a .269/.333/.360 line, an 87 wRC+, a .329 BABIP, 10 HBPs, and slightly below average defense. The result: a 0.5 WAR in 414 plate appearances. Jay might BABIP his way to a higher average like he did last year, but he doesn’t look like a good bet for it.
As for Almora, he’s projected to slash .269/.300/.397, good for 84 wRC+. Combined with average defense, he’s forecast for a 0.5 WAR in 328 plate appearances. Similar offensive value combined with a slight defensive edge probably renders Almora the slightly better player in 2017, let alone into the future.
So we return to the question posed above: why Jay? A possible explanation is that he’s simply a cheap insurance policy for Almora. At $8 million, he doesn’t represent a major expenditure, and he guarantees some floor of production while failing to block Almora should the latter experience substantive improvement at the big-league level. Alternatively, it’s possible that the Cubs simply aren’t that high on Almora. Once one of the top-50 prospects in baseball, Almora has lost his shine over the past few years. If the Cubs believed in Almora as the future in center field, it seems unlikely that they would give away 400 center-field at-bats to Jon Jay.
It’s also possible, both with regard to Almora and Soler, that their trade value will never be higher than it is right now, and that the Cubs plan to see what they can get for either or both this offseason. If the Cubs relegate Almora to fourth-outfielder status in 2017, it’s hard to envision a scenario in which he has more appeal to clubs a year from now. That said, giving him a clear role as a platoon outfielder — with the chance for something greater if he plays well — provides a path towards something better. The possibilities with Soler are less clear.
Soler entered the 2016 season without a starting spot. As a result, many wondered if the club should trade him last winter. Coming off a 2014 that included a cameo in the majors, Soler positioned himself as one of the best prospects in baseball. The Cubs handed Soler the job in 2015 but he failed to run with it, producing roughly average offense from a corner-outfield spot, where reports of his defensive prowess were not great. The Cubs ultimately didn’t trade Soler in the subsequent offseason, bringing him back even after signing Jason Heyward, retaining Fowler when he fell in their laps, and handing the left-field job to Kyle Schwarber.
An early-season injury to Schwarber might have initially seemed to open the door for Soler. Ultimately, though, he received only a part-time role, recording 264 plate appearances and, again, producing a roughly average batting line. Meanwhile, Kris Bryant started a bunch of games in left field, while Baez, Chris Coghlan, Willson Contreras, and Matt Szczur all got extra time to compensate for Schwarber’s absence. Now, with return of a healthy Schwarber in 2017 — and perhaps more time for Baez at second base — there appears once again to be only limited plate appearances left over for Soler.
The Cubs could resolve this by trading Schwarber, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello recently suggested. That would likely net the biggest return — and the Cubs are likely in need of some young pitching as Jake Arrieta and John Lackey enter their last seasons before free agency and Jon Lester ages another year. That could free up some playing time for Soler if the club is confident he’ll take another step forward. Soler isn’t necessarily cheap relative to the service time he’s accumulated: the deal he signed out of Cuba calls for him to make $3 million in 2017 and $4 million the following three seasons — and gives him the opportunity to opt into arbitration if that would prove more profitable for him. The Cubs are certainly free to hold on to Soler and use him as depth. Their resources afford them that luxury. Unless he breaks out next season, though — and the projections are pessimistic that will occur — the Cubs should capitalize on whatever he still possesses of his prospect-ish trade value, take what they can get for him, and move forward.