During his end-of-season press conference a month ago, Cubs president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer wasn’t shy about acknowledging that there were still question marks around the roster that the most recent 162-game season didn’t answer.
“I want to build on the momentum that we created at the end of the year, but I know that we have some holes to fill, and we’ll be aggressive to try to fill those holes in the best way possible,” Hoyer said. “I think we can definitely compete next year, and we also want to create something lasting and special. We’re always going to have to keep those two things in mind, but I do believe that a successful offseason does involve filling those holes that we know we saw.”
For an example of what one of those holes might be, the team’s skipper has a good idea of where an opening in his starting lineup exists.
“Talking to a lot of these outfielders, left and right are taken,” Ross told reporters in Cincinnati during the Cubs’ final series of the year at Great American Ball Park. “Pretty simple. There’s an open spot, and it’s in center field. So, that’s where I would put in my work, that’s where I would try to get better.”
At least for 2023, he’s not wrong in saying there’s only one outfield spot that’s truly up for grabs.
Ian Happ found a home in left field after years of bouncing around different positions, and he rode that consistency to both his first All-Star Game and his first National League Gold Glove Award. And in the other corner of the outfield, the Cubs spent nearly $100 million to bring Seiya Suzuki to Chicago, and there’s certainly an expectation for him to take a jump in the second year of his five-year deal. At this point, there’s no immediate future in which a healthy Suzuki isn’t playing right field for the Cubs every day.
So, it looks like anyone looking to win a starting outfield job is going to have to compete for center field. But there’s where things get even more complicated.
Jason Heyward, the starting center fielder to begin 2022, will be released this winter before the final year of his eight-year deal. Of the other seven players to have played an inning in center for the Cubs this past season, the best bet would seem to be Christopher Morel.
As versatile as Morel proved he can be defensively, though, that didn’t translate to success in center. In 458 innings at the spot, Morel recorded a -3.7 ultimate zone rating, -5 defensive runs saved and -4 outs above average. As good as Morel could one day be at multiple positions, making him the starting center fielder in 2023 doesn’t look like the best option for the Cubs.
Other in-house options currently include Nelson Velázquez, Rafael Ortega and Michael Hermosillo, but none of those three offer any more confidence than Morel and the latter two may find themselves victims of the Cubs’ 40-man crunch this offseason.
Now, this would’ve been less of a problem a month ago. At that point, Brennen Davis (Cubs’ No. 2 prospect, per MLB Pipeline) had recovered from mid-season back surgery, had gotten about six weeks of game action in the minors and had just wrapped up the first week of the Arizona Fall League. Meanwhile, Alexander Canario (No. 9) had just finished a 2022 season that saw him rise from High-A to Triple-A and lead the entire Cubs’ system with 37 home runs. Both have played center field throughout their minor league careers, and either could’ve turned a productive spring training into a spot in center on Opening Day.
But at this point, one seems unlikely, and the other isn’t going to happen.
Vice president of player development Jared Banner met with reporters at the General Manager Meetings in Las Vegas on Monday, and he provided updates that brought a little more clarity to Davis and Canario’s health statuses.
Davis was limited to just five games in the AFL, which Banner told reporters was due to “general soreness,” but he is expected to be ready by spring training. Still, as Hoyer pointed out during his season-ending presser, Davis lost a lot of reps this season and was still trying to build back to his full strength prior to being pulled out of the AFL. So, it would make sense for the Cubs to take it easy and not try to rush Davis to be ready for Opening Day.
But at least for him, that’s not out of the realm of possibility. For Canario, his big league debut is still a ways away.
During a Dominican Winter League game on Oct. 27, Canario severely rolled his ankle stepping onto first base, and during his fall to the ground, landed on his shoulder. On Monday, Banner told reporters that Canario recently underwent surgery on his fractured left ankle, and he has an upcoming surgery to address a dislocated left shoulder. Banner also said Canario will not be ready for the beginning of 2023 and there’s no specific timetable for his return.
Those two situations, combined with the fact that No. 1 prospect Pete Crow-Armstrong probably won’t be ready until 2024 at the earliest, mean center field is still far from decided for 2023.
They could easily go with Morel at the spot early on while they monitor both Davis and Canario — which is of course something Morel would be just fine with doing.
“I’m available for any position that the team needs me,” he said during the last homestand of the season. “If the team wants me to play a certain position just to give someone else a breather, I’ll do that as well. But for me, it’s just focusing on having that availability for the team, whatever they need.”
There are also free agents the Cubs could take a look at. Aaron Judge is pretty unlikely at this point, but other options for center fielders who at the very least provide a steady glove include Kevin Kiermaier (who will be 33 in April, who missed all but 63 games last season due to a lingering hip issue and who is expected to have his $13 million club option declined by the Rays) and Cody Bellinger (who is a true non-tender candidate by the Dodgers after three incredibly disappointing years). Both would be seen more as reclamation projects with some upside, and both would likely come on short-term deals that wouldn’t get in any of the Cubs’ outfield prospects’ way while also allowing the Cubs to move them through the system at the right pace.
All in all, center field is a spot the Cubs absolutely must address this winter. There is no clear frontrunner for the starting job in the system right now, and a competitive Cubs team may require a non-in-house option for at least the beginning of next season.
Regardless of who the Cubs see as the center fielder of the future, they need to have a plan of attack for to get better production from the spot, on both sides of the ball, in 2023.