The Cubs will go into this offseason ready to make at least some small amount of changes to the baseball club. Theo Epstein said as much in his incredible post-season conference (almost always the highlight of the year for non-baseball activities). The problem with jettisoning young players is that you are getting pennies on the dollar – advertising that you are getting rid of players tends to do that. There are a few candidates for the ole’ heave-ho, and I’ll lay out a case for each here:
Ian Happ: Happ has had 875 career plate appearances at the MLB level, and he’s struck out in nearly 300 of them (296, or 33.8% of appearances). That’s 5% more over his career than Javy Baez – nobody in the organization gives away quite as many ABs as Ian Happ does. Happ walks a lot, but lost a lot of power this season – only an unsustainable .362 BABIP this year allowed Happ to have any real semblance of production. Ian is prone to deep, deep slumps, and gives away a little bit in the field, so you’re looking at a second-division starter unless he can find a way to add power or disicipline, neither of which he’s had in spades in this organization.
Kyle Schwarber: Schwarber is the prototypical case of tools vs. results. To this very day, I think Schwarber has the highest potential, hitting wise, of any player in the organization! He has great plate discipline (as does Happ, to be fair). He can hit the ball a freaking ton. He takes his walks. He just…can’t make contact with the ball when it’s in the strike zone. He also doesn’t swing when the ball is in the strike zone (for good reason sometimes – Schwarber has a huge hole in his swing down and in). Schwarber hasn’t fixed that hole in 1274 plate appearances, and it will keep him from taking the leap into a premier hitter. What’s left – an average to above-average left fielder with both glove and bat – is still an attractive piece, but you can imagine another team thinking they can finally unlock his MVP potential, and the Cubs may well think this is the likely ceiling here.
Addison Russell: Just as a baseball decision, it’s easy to imagine Russell getting jettisoned. He’s backslid offensively in almost every season. On defense, he’s still nearly elite, but the bat wipes out nearly all the value the glove provides. If Russell were just an average guy, it would be time to think hard about moving Russell to a bench role (and a costly bench player, at that). Add in the other issues that we won’t recap here, and Russell is an easy choice to non-tender.
Albert Almora Jr.: Almora is the epitome of a 4th outfielder. He can give you a productive PH in a critical situation, he can play all three outfield positions, and he doesn’t have horrible platoon splits so you don’t worry about leaving him in the game for a second PA. What Almora can’t do is drive the ball with authority – his ISO this year was eclipsed by Billy Hamilton. I feel confident in saying that Almora has the lowest ceiling of all of the young players on the team. I can’t ever envision him being more than average with the stick, and with walk rates similar to Javier Baez, you have to be elite in the field or with the stick to be impactful and Albert isn’t either.
The unique situation that the Cubs find themselves is that they can easily re-arrange themselves to have a home for either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper (or even both, honestly!). The Cubs have $24.1 million to play with to reach 2018’s payroll (without moving any salary, and assuming Russell and Kintzler are gone and that Hamels will stay around $20MM). It does not seem unlikely that the Cubs can be in the market for either. I’d like to examine now the benefits of each.
The first thing that jumps out about Machado is his incredible consistency. With the exception of a bad-luck 2017 (BABIP-induced), Machado has put up wOBAs of .370, .366, and .377 in 3 of the past 4 seasons (2017’s number was .328, still above league average). Machado is a near lock for mid-30s dingers, and above-average defense at third base. He has no platoon advantage, does not wilt in high-leverage situations, and he’s only 4 months or so older than Harper. Lastly, Machado has been injured less recently than Harper has. Machado missed half of 2014, while Harper missed parts of 2017.
Harper has higher highs and lower lows than Machado does, which is first an indicator that Machado is the safer play (always remember, variance is good for bad teams and bad for good teams). Harper also sucks in the field, though he’s equally bad in CF and RF. The primary advantage of Harper is that he is an absolute monster at getting on base: his career OBP is .388 compared to .335 for Machado. From 2015 to now, here’s the top 10 list for OBP:
- Votto, .442
- Trout, .435
- Goldschmidt, .410
- Harper, .410
- Judge, .398
- Freeman, .391
- Cabrera, .388
- Altuve, .386
- Bryant, .385
- Rizzo, .385
Harper is elite at getting on base, and it isn’t like he sacrifices power for OBP. Harper has the 9th most homers in that same timeframe (Machado has the 8th most). Harper being a Cub would probably make getting a righty OF a priority, as Harper has shown himself merely decent against lefthanders. I’d imagine in the scenario that the Cubs sign Harper, they keep Almora and get rid of Schwarber (for defensive reasons and for handed-ness reasons). This team is pretty left-handed as it is.
The most obvious need on the team is hard to discern. If you take as given that Russell is gone, you can put Zobrist at 2B right now and slot Happ or Bote in there to spell him (frequently). Sign Machado, and you have a backup SS for Baez off days (and Bryant moves to LF for Machado everyday- come to think of it, Schwarber is the odd man out in either scenario). Sign Harper, and you probably have him Harper/Bryant/Heyward/Almora playing some chimera structure.
Both players have slight question marks about their personalities, as well. Machado insists upon being a shortstop – we already have one of those, and he’s a lot better at the position defensively than Manny is. Machado actually kinda sucks at shortstop and is great at third. You can perhaps get away with Bryant/Machado/Baez/Rizzo given how unreal Baez is at second, but I’d rather not risk opening up a defensive hole if we don’t have to (though is Bryant/Baez/Zobrist/Rizzo any better?). Harper has literally been choked on camera by a teammate – I think most of that is on Papelbon, but you can’t help but wonder a little bit. Still, I clearly don’t know them as people, so it’s hard to say too much on this point.
I’m not certain either signing makes more or less sense than the other. Both can fit, especially if some of the core is on the way out anyway. I think I prefer Harper, but it’s a soft preference at best. Contract demands may be a greater informant than any positional consideration, too – I don’t think Machado even WANTS to come to Chicago, while Harper clearly would entertain the notion. While it sucks that we are thinking about this and not the playoffs, we can at least feel fortunate that we can basically assume we’re in for someone, even if we come away with nobody. This front office (and this ownership group, despite any political misgivings you may have) has operated in such a way that they have the benefit of the doubt.