If you clicked on this post, you are probably a Cubs fan or an NL-only league player. There are some seriously un-sexy names in the Cubs outfield, but there’s some definite value to be had for NL-only players, and one of the Cub outfielders makes for a very interesting sleeper in mixed leagues. Of the three expected starters, two are looking like values according to early ADP, and the other is priced just about right.
After Nate Schierholtz was non-tendered by the Phillies after the 2012 season, the boss man, Dave Cameron, implored some team to give Schierholtz some regular playing time.
The Cubs obliged by signing Schierholtz to a one-year deal for $2.25 million and giving him 503 PA. And the Cubs were rewarded with Schierholtz producing 1.4 WAR for them. Schierholtz hit for power like he never has before. His ISO prior to last season was just .139, but his ISO was .219 last year. The move to Wrigley had to have helped, or, rather, the move away from San Francisco had to have helped. Wrigley’s HR as L park factor last year was average at 100, but San Francisco’s HR as L park factor was the lowest in the league at 85. His average home run and fly ball distance last year was right in line with where it was from 2009-2011 (it dipped in 2012), but in Wrigley that distance led to 21 home runs whereas he only hit 23 home runs in 1,316 plate appearances as a Giant.
Despite the logical reason for Schierholtz’s power surge, a little regression might be in order. His average home run and fly ball distance was only 142nd in the league, but his HR/FB rate of 14.2% was 42nd in the league. Not that there’s a perfect correlation between batted ball distance and home run rate, but that HR/FB rate is probably coming down toward league average next season. But it could be offset a bit by an uptick in batting average. Schierholtz hit .251 last year but has a career average of .265. The average dropped primarily due to a bad BABIP in July and a horrendous BABIP in Septermber despite Schierholtz hitting line drives at the same rate as he did basically all season. His season long line drive rate was 20.3%, which is right in line with his career average.
The power regression could be offset a bit more by an uptick in playing time. The Cubs used Schierholtz almost strictly against right-handers last year as 87% of his plate appearances were against them. But the Cubs only have two major league ready outfielders on the 40 man roster that hit from the right side, and both of those guys figure to play the other two outfield positions, not serve as a platoon partner in right field with Schierholtz. Really the only option they have to platoon with him is Darnell McDonald. But it might not be a horrible idea for them to just let Schierholtz play there every day. For one thing, he’s not horrible against left-handers. For his career, he has a 85 wRC+ against left-handers compared to a 101 wRC+ against right-handers. And second, he’s about a league average defender in right. Giving him a few more unsheltered plate appearances isn’t going to hurt his value much.
According to our end of season valuations, Schierholtz was a borderline top 60 outfielder last year, which means he was good enough to be a third outfielder in NL-only leagues. He’s currently being drafted as the 81st outfielder in NFBC drafts, aka a fifth outfielder in NL-only leagues. Even with a little regression he should produce enough to be a fourth outfielder in that format and return some value on his draft day price.
Justin Ruggiano will spend most of his time working to Schierholtz’s right in center field, although Ruggiano will likely see time at each outfield position this year. Like Schierholtz, Ruggiano should benefit from a move to the friendly confines. Or rather, he should benefit from the move out of a bad home ballpark, Miami, which had the third lowest HR as R park factor last year. Wrigley is slightly more favorable to right-handed power hitters than left with a 103 HR a R park factor. The difference between Schierholtz and Ruggiano is that Ruggiano has shown plenty of power before.
Ruggiano has a career 15.3% HR/FB rate and has 37 homers in 999 career PA. He ranked 51st in the league last year in average home run and fly ball distance. Steamer projects Ruggiano to hit as many home runs this year as he did last year despite projecting him for 82 more plate appearances. If Ruggiano actually does get the 550+ PA Steamer projects him for, I’d be shocked if he didn’t hit 20+. With 1,000 PA under his belt, I’m comfortable expecting Ruggiano to maintain an above average HR/FB rate. Based on Steamer’s projected strikeout and walk rates, they’re projecting Ruggiano to put about 374 balls into play. If we use his career fly ball rate of 37.2%, that means he’s going to hit roughly 130 fly balls. And if his career HR/FB rate holds, he’d hit 21 home runs.
But that’s as conservative as I can be with that projection. For one, his fly ball rate has actually been a bit higher in the last two years at 38.5%. And second, we should be expecting his HR/FB rate to be increasing in Wrigley. Wrigley is 13% more favorable to right-handed home runs than Miami, so if we increase his career HR/FB rate by 13%, we could expect it to be about 17.2%. So if he hits puts 374 balls into play with a 38.5% fly ball rate, we get 144 fly balls. And if we use the increased HR/FB rate, that would produce 24-25 home runs. I realize this is some inexact math, but I’m just trying to illustrate that expecing Ruggiano to hit less than 20 home runs is crazy if he really does get 550+ PA with Wrigley as his home park.
While the power is nice, Ruggiano has a couple of warts. He doesn’t hit for much average because he swings and misses a lot. Last year he hit just .222 with a 24.2% K%. But his average was depressed by a .260 BABIP. His career average is .251 with a career BABIP of .310. The other problem is that he has a big platoon split. For his career, his wRC+ against left-handers is 127 compared to 92 against right-handers. The Cubs fourth outfielder, Ryan Sweeney, is left-handed, so he’s going to take some at-bats from Ruggiano. The good news for Ruggiano is that the left fielder, Junior Lake, is also right-handed and has a similar platoon problem. Sweeney ought to vulture at-bats from each of them, which means Ruggiano has a good chance of getting the 554 PA projected by Steamer. The other good news is that a 92 wRC+ against right-handers isn’t all that bad.
As for speed, Ruggiano has stolen 29 bags in his last 792 plate appearances. If you take that rate and apply it to his projected 554 PA, you’re looking at 20 steals this year. That gives us a working projection of 24 home runs, 20 steals and a .260 batting average. For simplicity’s sake we’ll use Steamer’s projections of about 130 R+RBI. Call me crazy, but that looks like the projection of a top 40 outfielder. Think I’m nuts? Here is what Desmond Jennings and Leonys Martin did last year along with their rank among outfielders:
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not drafting Ruggiano as top 40 outfielder. But I might be taking him as a fifth outfielder in 12-team mixed leagues. And I’ll presumably be able to wait very late to do so. Ruggiano is going 86th among outfielders in NFBC ADP. That’s way, way, way too late. Sure, there is some average risk, and there’s some risk Ruggiano won’t get as much playing time as I’m talking about here. But he’s a legitimate power/speed combo that will be going well outside of the top 300 overall. You’re not going to find any other guys with 20/20 potential that late.
Rounding out the starting outfield is Lake in left field. Lake had a nice little 250 PA debut last year hitting .284 with six home runs. But power and average aren’t going to be where Lake’s fantasy value come from. He showed moderate power in the minors and could hit 12 bombs or so in a full season. His 27.8% line drive rate from last year will surely regress, and his batting average will do so along with it.
Instead, Lake’s value is likely to derive primarily from his legs. He stole 126 bases in 2,344 minor league plate appearances (roughly one every 18.5 PA) against 41 times he was caught stealing (75.4%). But in his debut last year he stole just four bags in eight tries. Assuming he gets 400+ PA as Steamer projects, Lake could top 20 steals if his base running ability translates.
If we’re talking 12 home runs, 20 steals and a .265-ish average over roughly 400 PA, we’d be looking at basically what Dexter Fowler did last year with fewer runs. Fowler was a borderline top 30 NL-only outfielder, so Lake could easily be worth using as your fourth outfielder in that format. He’s currently going 70th among all outfielders which translates to roughly 35th among NL outfielders. Maybe there’s not value in Lake’s ADP like there is with Schierholtz and Ruggiano, but he should return about what he costs.
Ryan Sweeney will serve as the fourth outfielder and will take some work away from Ruggiano and Lake, but he shouldn’t get enough plate appearances to have any value outside of being a replacement level outfielder in NL-only leagues. If one of the guys ahead of him were to get hurt, he could be useful for a bit of pop but will remain largely irrelevant even in that scenario.
Someday we’ll hopefully be talking about Albert Almora and Jorge Soler in the Cubs outfield, but the Cubs top outfield prospects are a ways away. Both are expected to begin the year in high-A ball and move to AA at some point.