By Randy Richardson
There were many pieces that came together for the Cubs to win their first World Series title in 108 years. But arguably the most critical piece came to them by surprise, just as spring training was getting underway, when centerfielder Dexter Fowler walked away from a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles to play one more year in Chicago.
The rest of course is history. Fowler had his best season in the majors, both with the glove and the bat, earning him his first All-Star start. As the team’s leadoff hitter, he had an uncanny ability to get on base, posting a .393 OBP. “You go, we go,” referring to Fowler, became the team’s season-long rally cry. Oh, and then he led off Game 7 of the World Series with a home run.
Now Fowler is gone to the archrival Cardinals, with whom he signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal, leaving a huge offensive and defensive hole for the Cubs at the top of the batting order and in the center of the outfield.
Rookie outfielder Albert Almora proved in the postseason that he’s ready to fill the defensive void. But his bat remains a question mark.
Almora batted .277 in 112 at-bats as a rookie. Not too shabby. But as ESPN.com’s David Schoenfield noted in a recent assessment, Almora had a problem that many young hitters face when making the jump to the big leagues: swinging at pitches out of the strike zone. Think Javy Baez’s first trip to the majors. “Right now, Almora projects as a low-OBP guy without much power, with the possibility of getting exposed with regular playing time,” Schoenfeld wrote. “The Steamer projection system at FanGraphs sees a .269/.300/.397 line, a big drop from Fowler’s .393 OBP.”
The Cubs saw this hole and looked at the free agent market where they hope that they found just what they were looking for in Jon Jay, a veteran contact hitter with solid defensive skills, who, coming off two injury-plagued seasons, took a one-year, $8 million deal. For the 31-year-old Jay, it was probably just what he was looking for, too: a chance to not only prove that he can still play at a high level but also to help the Cubs win back-to-back championships, just like they did in 1907-1908.
A lifetime .287 hitter in seven seasons with the rival Cardinals and Padres, the left-handed hitting Jay is expected to complement the development of Almora, 22.
Veteran Chicago baseball analyst Bruce Levine sees Jay as a solid if not spectacular pickup for the Cubs. “With the addition of Jay for one season, the Cubs have added a player with a left-handed bat and a solid on-base percentage of .352 for his career,” Levine wrote. “The move allows the 22-year-old Albert Almora to grow into the center field position as a platoon player to begin the 2017 campaign.”
Jay is also expected to give the Cubs that much-needed top-of-the-order spark that Fowler provided the last two seasons. He’s likely to take turns at leadoff with Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist. Jay has a lifetime .352 on-base percentage and has spent most of his career batting in the top two spots in the order. Jay has hit higher than .290 in five of his seven seasons, including a career-best .305 mark in 2012 with the Cardinals.
The big question mark for Jay is whether he can stay healthy. His playing time has been limited by arm injuries the last two seasons. In the off-season preceding the 2015 season, Jay had surgery on the left wrist, which did not heal completely. He struggled through other injuries on the same wrist, such as a bone bruise and tendinitis, hampering his ability to hit effectively. His batting average plummeted to a career-worst .210 in a career-low 245 plate appearances.
In the offseason preceding the 2016 season, Jay was traded to the San Diego Padres in exchange for Jedd Gyorko. After a productive first couple of months of the season for the Padres, Jay suffered a broken forearm when Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez hit him with a pitch June 19. Jay returned Sept. 6 and finished the season with a .291 batting average.
For 2017, Steamer projects a .270 BA and .340 OBP for Jay, who will be reunited with former Cardinals teammate Jason Heyward. The two made up two-thirds of the Cards’ Opening Day outfield in 2015.
With Jay and Almora platooning in center and Gold Glover Heyward in right, the Cubs should be set defensively in right and center. Jay’s defensive marks are somewhat mixed but so were Fowler’s when he came to the Cubs. Generally, he’s not known for covering a lot of ground or having much of an arm but catches just about anything hit to him with a career .996 fielding percentage in center field. Between August 24, 2011 and July 30, 2013, Jay established a new NL all-time errorless streak record for center fielders at 245 games. The strength of his arm is reason for worry, though. From 2011–13, Fangraphs rated his arm at 21st out of 21 centerfielders who played at least 2,000 innings. Runners advanced for extra bases on Jay in 60 percent of plays.
Perhaps more than the stats can show, Jay brings the kind of veteran leadership presence that the Cubs will need in their attempt to repeat as champions. He was the starting center fielder for four consecutive National League Championship Series-qualifying clubs as a Cardinal (2011−14) and a World Series champion in 2011 when the Cardinals defeated the Texas Rangers.
For the Cubs to win back-to-back championships for the second time in franchise history they’re going to need a little luck again. It might be asking too much to equal the production that they got from Fowler at the top of the order. But if Jay and Almora can come together both offensively and defensively, the duo could give the Cubs that extra boost they need to make it back to the top of the baseball world.
Jay, for his part, seems ready for the challenge. “Thank you, everyone, for all the love! I am excited to join the @Cubs and be part of this special organization and group of guys,” Jay tweeted after signing with the Cubs. #flytheW
Randy Richardson is the author of the Wrigleyville murder mystery, Lost in the Ivy, and a regular contributor to Wrigleyville Nation