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With one mighty swing in the top of the eighth on Monday night, the Cubs caught a glimpse of what the long-term future of their outfield could very well look like:
Yes, that was an absolute missile sent by Chicago’s top prospect to deep center field, and for fans who want to believe that the Cubs’ farm system is truly producing some enticing players, that Brennen Davis homer is just one example of what might be coming with some of the team’s outfield prospects.
But this isn’t about what the long-term future holds for the organization. No, it’s about the immediate future of the big league club, and more specifically, the crowded outfield picture that’s still evolving the closer we get to Opening Day.
First things first, let’s reiterate that Davis won’t be manning an outfield spot when the Brewers travel to Wrigley Field on April 7. He’s had just 68 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, and though he could certainly make his major league debut at some point later this season, it makes sense that Chicago — which already reassigned him to minor league camp on Friday — would let him get everyday reps in the minors before he gets that call.
So where does that leave the rest of the outfield now that the countdown until Opening Day is now in the single digits?
Alfonso Rivas could be an insurance option considering his ability to play the corner outfield positions and first base and has so far impressed during the spring, but considering he has multiple options left, he appears likely to at least start the season in the minors. Harold Ramirez (traded to the Rays) and Greg Deichmann (optioned to Triple-A) have also recently been taken out of the running.
That leaves six outfielders who could end up on the Cubs’ roster nine days from now: Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Seiya Suzuki, Michael Hermosillo, Clint Frazier and Rafael Ortega.
Now, the running idea is that Chicago will head into the regular season with just five outfielders on the active roster.
It has been reported that Major League Baseball will allow teams to carry up to 28 players with no limit on the number of pitchers through May 1, but despite allowing the chance that all six outfielders could stick on the team, it’s believed that the Cubs will use those spots to carry two more pitchers. And with the way the rest of the position groups are expected to shake out, a five-man outfield seems likely.
From that group of six, three can probably be penciled in as Opening Day starters: Happ will likely start in left field, Heyward will join him in center and Suzuki will be plugged into right. Happ and Heyward are staples in the order when healthy, and Chicago didn’t sign Suzuki to a five-year, $85 million deal to not place him directly into the lineup.
Suzuki’s situation is actually interesting, as he could theoretically go down to the minors while he learns to adjust to his new home. Last week, though, manager David Ross quickly shut down any idea that the team is leaning toward going that route.
“He’s a big leaguer,” Ross said on March 22. “We ain’t sending him down there unless he wants to go down there and get extra at-bats.”
So unless Suzuki himself makes that call, the outfield should see him, Heyward and Happ when the first pitch is thrown on April 7. However, behind those three is where a tough decision will have to be made.
Clint Frazier’s comeback
Frazier is as intriguing as they come in terms of Chicago’s potential outfielders, as he’s a former No. 5 overall pick moving to the North Side on a one-year, $1.5 million deal after spending his first five big league seasons with the Yankees. His last remaining minor-league option could hurt his chances, because if the North Siders do indeed go with just five outfielders on the Opening Day roster, they could use that flexibility and have Frazier start the season in the minors.
As he also recently told NBC Sports Chicago’s Gordon Wittenmyer, Frazier is coming off a season spoiled by the effects of a concussion that he suffered in September 2020, and he was ultimately designated for assignment on Nov. 19.
However, Frazier also told Wittenmyer that he’s feeling as close to 100 percent as he can get, and his performance in Cactus League play has helped prove that. Frazier was hitting .313 with a .914 OPS in seven games after Monday’s 4-2 win over the Reds. He started showcasing that pedigree of a former top-five draft pick, and it could definitely be worth Chicago’s while to keep him around and see if he can hit close to his ceiling in the big leagues. Plus, with Happ still working his way back from a February “clean-up” procedure in his right elbow, it would make sense to use Frazier in left and give Happ a day off or use him as a DH to rest the elbow.
Battle for the last spot?
So, that brings us to the other two players fighting for an outfield spot.
Ortega and Hermosillo both made their Cubs debuts last season after spending time at Triple-A Iowa, with Ortega getting the call on May 26 and Hermosillo joining him on Aug. 17 (though a left forearm strain ultimately ended his season in mid-September). Both have an argument to claim a roster spot, and Ross recently noted what each would bring to the big league club.
“Good athlete, probably our better center fielder as far as just metrically measuring out,” Ross recently told reporters in Mesa, Arizona, about Hermosillo. “Good jumps, real power. A guy that has hit some lefties in the past. Had a really good season last year, got hurt, came up, contributed a little bit. Just raw power. Likes to go get it. I think it’s a piece that, if it works out that way, that we see could fit.”
“I think Rafi proved what kind of hitter he was last year,” Ross also said about Ortega on March 22. “I mean, over .800 OPS off of righties and led off for us and gets good at-bats. The quality at-bat is consistent, so just continue to see those traits and continue to perform and get ready for the season.”
The issue that comes with Ortega and Hermosillo is that both are out of minor-league options. So, unless both make the Opening Day roster, one of them will be the odd man out and would have to be designated for assignment and pass through waivers to be able to start the season in the Cubs’ system.
With the way the outfield is currently constructed, keeping Hermosillo on the roster would make the most sense between the two.
Ortega hit exceptionally well against righties last season (.321/.374/.526) but saw his numbers take a hit against lefties (.128/.293/.128). Those numbers would make Ortega a great fit for a center-field platoon with a right-handed bat. However, as noted above, Chicago isn’t moving on from Heyward, and it has instead shifted him to center to make room for Suzuki. So, Ortega’s path appears to be blocked by another lefty bat whose leadership and defensive ability might be valued a bit more than what Ortega brings to the table.
Now, this would all become moot if the Cubs go an unexpected route with how they build the 28-man roster on Opening Day.
Chicago could limit itself to 14 pitchers, allowing that extra spot to go to whichever outfielder was going to be left out. There’s also always the potential for an injury to open up a roster spot (though those who would be on the outside looking in certainly wouldn’t wish for that).
However, in the likeliest scenario, the outfield competition will come down to a choice of five. But for those who know there’s potential that they might not start the season on the Cubs’ active roster, none of them are backing down from fighting for their spot on the team.
“I think you embrace it, honestly,” Hermosillo told CHGO about the outfield competition last week. “There’s a lot to be learned from these guys. There’s no reason I can’t take things from other outfielders as well and apply it to my game.
“Competition is healthy. I think it brings the best out of me, and hopefully I bring the best out of others by pushing them as well. I think everything else will kind of just fall into place.”
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