CHICAGO -- The rebuilding Chicago Cubs are heavy in infield prospects, but where are the outfielders who are going to help lead them to contending status?
They certainly aren't employed by the big league club right now.
This will come as no surprise to the Cubs, as they know they hired a group of fourth outfielders to roam Wrigley Field this season, but the numbers are staggering.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Cubs outfielders have a .289 on-base percentage, second worst in baseball. Their .639 OPS is third worst. Their 24.7 strikeout percentage is third highest and their 5.9 walk percentage is fourth lowest. Their six home runs are the fewest in the National League. When Junior Lake (five home runs) doesn't start and with Justin Ruggiano (one homer) on the disabled list, the Cubs' outfield has zero home runs.
At least their strikeout percentage goes down when Lake sits, as he alone brings that way up with 45 whiffs in 114 at-bats. There's no other way to cut it, the Cubs' outfield isn't very productive, and that's even with early-season surprise Emilio Bonifacio (.292, .337 OBP) playing there more often than not since Ruggiano went down with a hamstring injury.
A bad six weeks by veteran Nate Schierholtz has really affected the numbers, but again, this can't come as a big surprise. Were Ryan Kalish, Ryan Sweeney, Chris Coghlan and Ruggiano along with Lake and Schierholtz really going to shock the baseball world this season? Not according to the back of their baseball cards.
But we know this was by design. The Cubs don't want to clog up their outfield with expensive and older players when their prospects are ready, so they passed on free agents such as Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo. You may think that was all about money, but when the Cubs are on the record saying they didn't spend everything they could have last offseason then passing on those players was by choice. And it was the right choice.
But for an organization with so many prospects, not one at Triple-A Iowa is projected as an everyday outfielder in the big leagues. In fact there's only one with any intrigue: defensive whiz Matt Szczur. Josh Vitters, Brett Jackson and Logan Watkins aren't going to be starting on the Cubs when the team is ready to compete -- or likely ever. At the lower levels of the minors we know there are some names with some talent such as Jorge Soler and Albert Almora. Soler hasn't been healthy enough to know when he'll be ready and Almora is still (for now) at high Class A ball in Daytona. If the Cubs are honest about not skipping any levels and prospects having to dominate before advancing then both still have a ways to go, maybe a long ways.
So how can the Cubs advance their rebuilding? How about getting serious about moving some players to the outfield, starting with Double-A stud Kris Bryant? It's not that Bryant can't play third base, but he's needed more in the outfield and right now the Cubs have a third baseman (Mike Olt) leading all rookies in home runs and just four behind the National League leader despite not playing every day.
Bryant recently told ESPNChicago.com that he's working extremely hard at third base. There's a good chance the Cubs are going to move him to the outfield eventually. Why not now? Why let him put all that work in at third instead of the outfield? Why wait as they did with Lake and now with Javier Baez? Lake is paying for it now, and Baez will almost assuredly be paying for it later when he's moved from shortstop.
In fact, maybe Baez or even Starlin Castro should move to the outfield or at least out of the shortstop position. Both might be best suited for third base. There's a chance neither Castro nor Baez is suited to play shortstop for a championship-caliber team. Scouts confirm what the eye test shows: Castro doesn't see the ball well off the bat, especially on line drives. On all balls hit to his left and right he's plus-16, on balls hit straight at him he's minus-27 for his career. Either he doesn't pick up the spin or isn't judging the speed or trajectory.
Unless the belief Baez is going to go down as one of the greatest power-hitting shortstops of all time he needs to move from shortstop, as well. Let him focus on the thing he does best: slugging. Could either play center field? Are the Cubs going to wait for one player at Class A right now and not give a shot to anyone else in center until Almora is ready? Prospect Arismendy Alcantara could move back to shortstop. He's the more prototypical candidate for a team that should employ bigger sluggers around him.
Not to say Castro is an awful shortstop, but he could be an option to improve the black hole that is the outfield.
The Cubs say things will play out and that's just fine in a lost season like this one. Let Lake learn on the job. Give new manager Rick Renteria something to do -- like when he was animatedly teaching Lake the finer points of defense on Saturday during batting practice -- but the Cubs could quickly change the outlook in their outfield if they started moving some pieces around. That way 2015 or more likely 2016 might not only be about developing but maybe it starts to be about winning.
Otherwise, the rebuilding project might continue on that snail's pace. No one wants that.