June 13, 2007
Picking an Outfield in Wrigleyville
A bit more than a week ago, the Cubs recalled Felix Pie from Triple-A and installed him as the everyday center fielder and #2 hitter. Only 22, Pie is a very raw, toolsy prospect out of the Dominican Republic, and a player who is expected to be part of the Cubs' future. On the surface, Pie has played so well at Triple-A this season that promoting him seems the obvious solution to an outfield that lacks a true center fielder.
Despite that, I remain skeptical about the decision to designate Pie the solution to what ails the Cubs. He was batting .389 at Iowa when they tabbed him, with 12 unintentional walks in 141 plate appearances, and 12 extra-base hits in 126 at-bats. The average is clearly impressive, and no doubt helped by a significant improvement in his contact rate in the early going. Pie struck out once every five at-bats the last two years at Double-A and Triple-A; he knocked that down by 50 percent in the early going this year. Everything about his performance this year reflects improvement over what came before, and I take that seriously.
However, Pie is still raw, as he showed in his first trip to Chicago earlier this year. He batted .224 and drew one walk in 50 plate appearances, striking out 10 times. He was just 5-for-9 stealing bases for Iowa, continuing a career-long trend of being a poor percentage thief. He's clearly fast enough to play center field, but sometimes runs routes as if he's trying to shake off coverage. Other than the improved contact rate, I'm not seeing where Pie has necessarily learned how to apply his tools on the field consistently, and designating him to be the everyday center fielder and #2 hitter is both a risk to his development, and to the team's chances in the NL Central.
This isn't a situation where the Cubs have no options. The decision to gamble $136 million on Alfonso Soriano's ability to play center field complicates matters, but they do have Jacque Jones, who still has the range to cover Wrigley Field's small middle pasture. For my money, Soriano could also play there at least part-time; ending that experiment seems more an overreaction to his tweaked hamstring than any defensive deficiency on his part. Angel Pagan, who started there last night, can serve as a defensive replacement as well as someone to start on the road in places like San Diego and Florida, where the distances are measured in miles. Cliff Floyd and Matt Murton are adequate corner outfielders, arguably a natural platoon, although both have cases for playing more than that.
Soriano is going to play every day, and Jacque Jones, despite two awful months, is going to play against right-handers. That leaves 1 ½ spots for Pie, Murton, Floyd, and Pagan, with the caveat that if Pie is in this mix, he's going to play every day. The Cubs have currently chosen to play Pie and effectively reduce Matt Murton to the wrong side of a platoon. I think that decision is a mistake that makes the Cubs even less effective offensively, ruining a good hitter's development, and runs the risk of damaging their top prospect.
Murton's overall line is lousy. He's batting .252/.331/.336 in 133 at-bats, well below par for any kind of corner outfielder, and a disappointment on the heels of his .297/.365/.444 2006 season at the age of 24. I expected to find that coming off of the bench was hurting him, but his line when he starts--.263/.333/.316--is actually slightly worse than what he does when he enters midgame. Certainly, Pie's arrival hasn't helped him: he's made just two starts and is 1-for-10 with two walks since June 4. His lack of playing time highlights the real choice here: Pie or Murton. Everyone else is a fixed part or a marginal one, but these are two young, talented players who cannot both play every day.
I would choose Murton. I would do so because the Cubs can trade center field defense for OBP more readily than most teams. I would do so because Pie, despite the .389 batting average at Iowa, doesn't appear to me to be ready for the major leagues, and certainly not ready to be a #2 hitter for a contending team. While he's played better the second time around--.317/.370/.463, with four walks and seven strikeouts in 46 PA--he's still working on converting his tools to skills.
The Cubs are wasting Matt Murton, both by not having him creating runs for them, and by killing his trade value by turning him into a part-time player. Most analyses of the Cubs focus on their need to trade Jacque Jones, but Jones is a 32-year-old platoon player with no arm and a .230 batting average. Trading is about perceived value, and Jones doesn't have very much at the moment. Murton, however, would bring back more as a pre-arb, pre-peak player. While I wouldn't recommend trading him, he's the chip that can bring back a useful infielder, not Jones.
The best Cubs outfield has Soriano in left, Murton in right, and a Jones/Pagan platoon, more or less, in center. You can play around with Soriano or Murton in center on days when you want to play Cliff Floyd in a corner, and you can steal some ABs for Floyd from Murton as well, but the redhead has to be in the lineup five or six days a week. He gives the Cubs a better chance to win than Pie does, at least at the moment. If Pie isn't going to play every day in Chicago, he shouldn't be there.
The more interesting decision might be whether Pie should play over Jones. I suspect that Jones is a lot better than his current 618 OPS, especially against northpaws, who he typically smacks around. If he doesn't turn it around, though, there's going to be a pretty strong argument for a Soriano/Pie/Murton outfield, with Jones as a fourth outfielder. It can be difficult to ascertain whether a player in his early 30s is in a slump or falling off of a cliff, and right now, I don't think we can make that call on Jones.
The backdrop for all of these decisions is a Cubs team that is much, much better than perceived. While they've been under .500 and chasing the Brewers since the season's second week, their core talent is on par with the division's front-runners, and their fundamental indicators are by far the best in the NL Central. They are the only Central team to have outscored their opponents, and their +25 run differential is actually third in the National League. While Jones, Michael Barrett, and a scar at shortstop haven't helped, the rest of the offense has chugged along nicely. The high-profile struggles of free agent-to-be Carlos Zambrano have similarly deflected attention from what is, on the whole, an above-average rotation and the team's key strength at the moment. The bullpen sports decent ERAs, but thanks to some critical meltdowns, is among the worst in the game when measured by WXRL. As Angel Guzman and Carlos Marmol take bigger roles, this could become a key strength for the team in the second half.
This looked to be the best team in the division in March, I insisted it was in April and May, and despite the standings, I'll stand by it in June. The Cubs are still my pick to win the Central.
I should mention that I made extensive use of Baseball Reference in both Monday's column and this one. The features that Sean Forman has added over the past year have done what I thought was impossible: made the site even more useful. If you haven't looked at it in a while, get over there and see what you can do now with in-season data updates, game logs, splits and a host of tools and widgets that will become an essential part of your daily routine.