More moves ahead after Cubs’ Jay signing

The Cubs have signed 31-year-old outfielder Jon Jay to a one-year, $8 million contract.

Jay is a solid player. He spent the first six years of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and somehow kept finding his way into the lineup. From 2011 to 2014, when the Cardinals made it to at least the National League Championship Series each year, Jay had at least 468 plate appearances in all four years. He’s not going to hit for much power, as he’s never hit more than ten homers in a season and his career slugging percentage is a modest .384. But he will make contact, batting .291 or higher in five of his seven major league seasons while posting a career .287 average. Last year, Jay played for the San Diego Padres and was limited to 90 games due to injury, batting .291 with 26 doubles, two home runs, and 26 RBIs.

In the outfield, Jay isn’t regarded as an elite defender, as he’s posted a career Defensive Wins Above Replacement of -0.2. But he can play all three outfield spots capably and has spent the majority of his time in center field, which is the most uncertain of the Cubs’ three outfield spots at this time. Jay has only been charged with eight errors in his career, and his Range Factor Per Nine Innings of 2.42 in 2016 was above the league average of 2.07.

All this being said, this signing doesn’t fully clarify the Cubs’ plans for their outfield for 2017. With Dexter Fowler all but gone, we’ve been waiting to see whether the Cubs are ready to give Albert Almora, Jr. the center field job or if they would go after another everyday player to replace Fowler (Charlie Blackmon is a name that’s been coming up in the rumor mill). Jay is a solid fourth outfielder and could probably fill in admirably should he need to start due to injuries. But at this stage of his career, he’s not going to replace Fowler’s production. Is the center field job still Almora’s to lose, or is another move coming? We still need to answer that question.

If anything, this has made the roles of several players already on the roster less certain. With this move, it’s hard to see the team keeping both Jorge Soler and Kyle Schwarber, as both can only play corner outfield spots. I still get the feeling that, despite all the talk of Schwarber being well-suited to be a designated hitter in the American League, the Cubs don’t want to trade him. This move likely means that Soler will be dealt, possibly for some pitching help.

Another question we need to answer is this: Will Ben Zobrist and Kris Bryant be asked to play more left and right field next year? Right now, it’s hard to know whether Jay’s presence will increase or decrease their outfield time. If they are relying on Jay for a lot of playing time, especially in center, they might not be needed as much with Schwarber in left and Jason Heyward in right. Or, if they see Jay as more of a backup at all three spots, if Almora struggles they might put Heyward in center and use Zobrist and Bryant in the corner outfield more. It’s a little confusing right now, but the good news is that Joe Maddon continues to have a lot of versatile players, which will help him should anyone slump or get injured.

So, while this is certainly not a bad move, we still don’t know for sure what the Cubs’ outfield will look like in 2017. Whether it’s through addition or subtraction, there are sure to be more moves before spring training.

Brian Johnston is the author of the book The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his story of following the 2015 Chicago Cubs, available on Amazon. He lives in St. Joseph, Michigan with his wife and two children.