2019 Preview: Cubs Outfield

The Cubs are seeking improvements from their incumbent outfielders.

Chris Emma
February 06, 2019 - 12:58 pm

(670 The Score) With pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training next week, we're breaking down the Cubs' roster as they enter the new season. Today, we continue with a look at the team's outfield.

Who's back?

The Cubs are set to return their entire outfield from the last two seasons, rotating Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist through their three positions. Kris Bryant could also play more outfield in 2019 after the team added Daniel Descalso to its infield mix.

Mark Zagunis, a 25-year-old who played in five MLB games last season, is also on the Cubs' 40-man roster.

2019 Cubs previews: Infield

Who's new?

There are no newcomers to the Cubs' outfield mix as spring training nears, as the Cubs haven't made a run at star free agent Bryce Harper because of financial constraints. It remains possible the Cubs could still add a veteran on a minor-league deal and add competition in spring training.

Position battles

Cubs manager Joe Maddon is constantly mixing and matching players in his lineup, and that will be the case among his outfielders.

Schwarber led Cubs outfielders with 510 plate appearances in 2018 and should continue to be the primary left fielder. He rebounded from a disastrous 2017 campaign by posting slash line of .238/.356/.467 while doubling his WAR from 1.6 to 3.2, per Fangraphs. After arriving in 2018 spring training leaner, Schwarber was a plus defensive player for the first time in his career.

The Cubs will continue to move the switch-hitting Zobrist between left field and right field when he's not playing second base while being cognizant of keeping him fresh. He started 62 times in the outfield and 42 times at second base in 2018. With good health, Zobrist return to form last season, ranking second on the team in WAR (3.6) and wOBA (.355), behind only Javier Baez, who was the National League MVP runner-up.

Like Schwarber, Heyward also doubled his WAR from 2017 to 2018, though he only went from 1.0 to 2.0. Needless to say, the Cubs haven't gotten enough out of their eight-year, $184-million investment in Heyward, who had a .731 OPS in 489 plate appearances across 127 games in 2018. Heyward should be the primary right fielder and receive some time in center.

The Cubs want strong play from 24-year-olds Happ and Almora, who should see the bulk of the work in center field. Happ hit .233 with 15 homers and a .761 OPS in 142 games in 2018, while Almora hit .286 with five homers and a .701 OPS in 152 games.

2019 outlook

The Cubs need to assess their players from the perspective of production and not potential, president of baseball operations Theo Epstein said in his 2018 season-ending press conference. Those words seemed especially true for their outfield, where Schwarber, Happ, Almora and Heyward all have underperformed to some degree.

Epstein clarified at the Cubs Convention in January that he wasn't suggesting there would be mass trades. Rather, he's viewing these players through a different prism than in the past. In other words, the Cubs want to see which prized prospects from years past emerge into prized players. 

In that sense, 2019 will be the "reckoning" that Epstein has mentioned.

"The end of last season was a collective failure that we need to own, which is a strange thing to say for a 95-win team, but it's the reality," Epstein said. "You can't grow from things unless you're honest about them, unless you're accountable for them, unless you make adjustments and unless you respond with some urgency."

To reach their goals, the Cubs are in need of more offensive production from those who have underwhelmed. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in their outfield.

Chris Emma covers the Bears, Chicago’s sports scene and more for 670TheScore.com. Follow him on Twitter @CEmma670.​