When asked how he would feel if the Cubs went into spring training with the roster as it stands right now, Theo Epstein pointed out the need for more pitching and then singled out the center field position.
"If we went more status quo, we need someone to step up in center field," Epstein said last week. "We have two young players who are still trying to establish themselves as more full-time players in Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr., so it would be an opportunity for one of those guys - or a combination of those guys - to grab the center field role and then we'd need somebody to step up in the leadoff role."
The leadoff spot is another issue altogether, but Epstein's comments on center field - and calling out Almora and Happ by name - underscores the front office's desire to upgrade that position this offseason.
In an ideal world, the Cubs would add a guy like Shogo Akiyama who could potentially lock down center field *and* leadoff on a near-everyday basis. But the market for the 31-year-old Japanese outfielder may wind up climbing out of the Cubs' range as they work with budget constraints for a second straight offseason.
The Cubs can't talk about specific free agents, but they did acknowledge a sit-down with Akiyama this winter.
"Yeah, we met with him," Jed Hoyer said. "Listen, a lot of teams were involved. Obviously he's a very good player and he's gonna have a good role on a major-league team this year, but I can't comment beyond that."
Akiyama hits left-handed and has posted a career .301 average and .376 on-base percentage in Japan. Those numbers have gone up recently, as he's eclipsed a .385 OBP each of the last five seasons. He also has some pop (three straight 20-homer seasons in NPB) with speed and good defense, but the latter skills are reportedly declining.
Akiyama will be 32 in April and stands as the ultimate wild-card with the combination of a declining skillset, his age and the unanswerable question of how his game will translate to MLB. But he checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs and would be a seemingly perfect fit on paper, if the price is right.
If the Cubs don't add Akiyama, the free agent center field options are limited. Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay are available, but both will be in their age-35 seasons. Billy Hamilton would be a defensive upgrade and his speed would provide a new dynamic to the Cubs roster, but he's struggled to hit enough to warrant everyday at-bats and certainly doesn't get on base enough to solve the leadoff issue (career .297 OBP).
There's the trade route, as the Cubs could find a long-term answer at center field in a deal with another team. Internally, they could also opt to move Jason Heyward back to center, but Epstein admitted last week the Cubs would prefer to keep the veteran in right field, playing alongside a good defensive center fielder.
Thus, a combination of Happ and Almora remains as a likely course of action for 2020.
Happ, 25, spent most of 2019 in the minor leagues working on his swing and finished on a hot streak to post a stellar overall line in 58 big-league games — .264/.333/.564 (.898 OPS). As a switch-hitter with power and patience at the plate, Happ could be in line for a lot more playing time if his refined offensive approach is here to stay and he continues to cut down on strikeouts. (That would also make him more enticing to other teams in a trade.)
Almora's future is a bit murkier. The first pick of the Epstein regime, Almora will be 26 in April and saw a decline in his game across the board in 2019. It was easily the worst offensive season of his career and also goes down as the worst defensively (-5 Defensive Runs Saved). Add it all up and Almora posted a -0.7 WAR in 130 games (363 plate appearances).
His ground ball percentage soared once again and his line drive percentage has steadily declined since his rookie season in 2016. He still makes a good amount of contact, but most of that is on a pitcher's pitch and he rarely takes a walk or works the count — he ranked 211th out of 241 hitters in pitches per plate appearance last season.
Still, the Cubs chose to tender Almora a contract last month as he enters his first year of arbitration (which is projected to pay him roughly $1.8 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors).
"I think he's a real bounceback candidate," Epstein said. "It's important that he recognizes where he is in his career. We were open with him about that — the offense hasn't come along yet quite the way we expected it to, but we think he absolutely has the potential. We think he's better than he's shown at the big-league level.
"With some adjustments in approach, I think there's plenty more there. He's been making things a little too easy on the pitcher sometimes, putting pitchers' pitches into play and hitting the ball on the ground to the pull side. He's got the potential to drive the ball through the gaps and use the whole field.
"With his contact ability, it's one of the things you can't teach — just an innate ability to get the bat on the ball. That's a valued skill in today's game and so with some slight adjustments, he could be a very, very interesting offensive player. Who he is now — I understand the frustration with the production — but I think there's a real chance for more in there with him. I think he believes that. He's hard at work this offseason trying to untap that potential."
We saw a flash of that potential to begin the season, as he posted solid numbers (.747 OPS, 7 HR, 20 RBI) in April and May. His production cratered from there with a .242 OBP, .560 OPS and only 8 extra-base hits (5 homers, 3 doubles) and 12 RBI the rest of the way (77 games). He walked just 7 times in four months.
That continues a disturbing trend of poor second-half production for Almora. In 2018, a strong surge to end the first half actually had him in the potential All-Star conversation with a .318 average and .795 OPS. But after the Midsummer Classic that season, Almora hit just .232 with a .546 OPS, 1 homer and 7 RBI in 66 games.
All told, here are Almora's splits over the last two seasons:
.286/.321/.420 (.741 OPS), 12 HR, 53 RBI
.220/.252/.297 (.549 OPS), 5 HR, 20 RBI
Consider the second half is a smaller sample size for Almora each of the past two seasons, but that's also of his own doing. Prolonged slumps led to Heyward moving to center field and decreased playing time for Almora (especially when Nicholas Castellanos joined the squad this past August).
So how does Almora turn things around? It's all approach — Epstein doesn't see a need for a major overhaul in the outfielder's mechanics this winter.
"He's got a pretty clean swing; his swing works," Epstein said. "That freakish contact ability — the ability to put virtually any pitch in play — can work against you unless you have the right approach. You're putting early count pitcher's pitches in play because you can. But with shifting and today's defenses, that's a hard way to get on base a lot."