The New Cubs Outfield – Question Marks
Asher B. Chancey, Baseball Evolution
December 20, 2005
The Cubs announced that they have signed Jacques Jones to a 3 year $16 million deal. The Cubs will add Jones to an outfield already comprised of Corey "Tools" Patterson, newly acquired Juan Pierre, and youngster Matt Murton.
Picking up Pierre was, on the surface, a fantastic move, as Pierre is a quality leadoff hitter who has a lot of speed and doesn't tend to strikeout. However, a closer look reveals a couple of questions. Pierre's average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage all dropped by about 50 points last season, while gathering 40 fewer hits and failing to score 100 runs for only the second time in his career. To be sure, Pierre was hurt at the start of the season, and he still played a solid centerfield (and will certainly be an improvement over Patterson), but Pierre has never been an on-base machine, relying primarily on his pure hitting ability to get on base. Still, hitting at the top of a lineup which includes Aramis Ramirez and Derrek Lee should lead to many scoring opportunities for Pierre.
The acquisition of Jones is another move which seems fantastic on the surface but creates a few questions. Jones will certainly be a defensive asset, as he gathered 10 outfield assists in 133 games last season and committed only four errors, and he has a career range factor significantly higher than the league average. However, Jacques Jones the batter has been on a downward spiral for three seasons following his breakout year in 2002, as his OPS has failed to top 800 each of the last three seasons and has failed to top the league average in each of the last two. Jones has never been an on-base machine; in 2003 he hit .304, but could only manage a .333 on-base percentage, walking only 21 times in 517 at-bats. The Dusty Baker Cubs have not generally been a patient team, and there is no reason to think that Jones, who hit .249 with a .319 OBP last season won't be a Kingman candidate in 2006.
I can already feel the anger welling up inside of me at the thought of watching Patterson and Murton be platooned next season. Fact is, Jones and Patterson are both lefty bats, and Baker plays the matchups way too religiously to platoon them together. It can't be denied that 51 games of Major League experience is simply not enough from which to draw conclusions, but there are a few things to be said. In a 51 game audition last season, Murton hit .321 with an OPS over .900 and a .72 BB/K ration. In a similar 2001 audition, Patterson played 59 games, managed a .602 OPS and a .18 BB/K ratio. For that matter, Patterson has never managed an average, slugging percentage, on-base, or OPS as high as Murton had last season. To really drive the point home – Murton's on-base percentage last season was 38 points higher than Patterson's slugging percentage last season. Here's another one – Patterson managed only 7 more walks than Murton despite his 311 more at-bats. Simply put, Murton has done more in his 51 games of Major League experience than Patterson has in his 589.
Meanwhile, for Patterson this likely means that for the first time in four years he will enter Spring Training without a guaranteed starting position, and could even be on the way out of Chicago. This may be the best thing that could have happened to Patterson. Lets assume for a moment that Patterson has been enabled throughout his professional career. He was a big prospect with the Cubs in 1999 and 2000, and he has long been hailed as the centerfielder of the future. In reality, Patterson has done little to earn his position on the Cubs at any level, because his position has never been threatened. For the first time, Patterson is on the outside looking in, and it could be the driving force in a career re-surgence (or should we simply say "surgence"). We know that Patterson has speed and power potential, and we also know that he is still quite young. His new position as the Cubs fourth outfielder may be what he needs going into Spring Training.
Fact is, the Cubs outfield is in a bit of turmoil. While some argue that an effective platoon at a position can be far more valuable than one mediocre outfielder, I think that effective platoons are rare. I envision a possible situation in which Juan Pierre starts in centerfield while Corey Patterson, Jacques Jones, and Matt Murton share time in the outfield, which will keep Murton from developing into a regular everyday outfielder. It can only be hoped that either Dusty Baker starts Murton and Pierre exclusively while either letting Jones and Patterson duke it out or the Cubs ship Patterson for some needed help in another area.