Kiermaier, Bellinger Could Be Options in Center While Crow-Armstrong Develops

All the focus on shortstops and starting pitchers has obscured some of the Cubs’ other needs, which is understandable because they’re not quite as sexy. One of those is a centerfielder, likely a glove-first veteran who’s looking to rebuild his value and start fresh on a short-term deal. The Cubs don’t want to do anything longer than two years and probably prefer just one since they’ve got Pete Crow-Armstrong waiting in the wings.

At the risk of wielding my karmic influence recklessly, I have zero concerns about PCA’s ability to succeed in the majors. As I see it, he has less risk than any other prospect in the entire system because he possesses what is easily the best carrying tool. His defense in center may be the best in all of the minor leagues, and it’s not a stretch to say he’ll be in the Gold Glove conversation from the moment he’s promoted.

Even if his bat stagnates a little bit, which I don’t think will be the case, Crow-Armstrong’s combination of athleticism and body control will make him a threat in other ways. With the glove as a sure thing, he can figure some of the other aspects of the game out as he goes if necessary.

Assuming the Cubs aren’t willing to engage the hyperdrive on his development, we’re looking at Crow-Armstrong spending at least most of next season at Double-A and/or Triple-A. They’ve got Christopher Morel and Nelson Velázquez to hold things down once in a while, but the former needs to be in a utility role and the latter will likely spend a fair bit of time in Iowa.

That means finding someone who can go out and pick it in center, even if that player has a wart or three. Since the bar was set incredibly low by an MLB-worst -18 defensive runs saved and a 29th-ranked -10.2 UZR, the Cubs don’t need to bring in an elite defender in order to effect tremendous improvement. For what it’s worth, Morel (-5 DRS) and Velázquez (-6) finished tied for 170th and 174th among 180 players with time in center this past season. All while playing at a home ballpark that’s considered to be pretty forgiving for that position.

As the Cubs look to upgrade their defense and add more lefty bats, they could look to a pair of players whose time with their current teams is about to run out. The Rays won’t be picking up Kevin Kiermaier‘s $13 million option, making him a free agent heading into his age-33 season following a year in which he played just 63 games due to a nagging hip issue that required surgery. Yeesh, he’s got more red flags than a night at Bottled Blonde Chicago.

All that risk means the Fort Wayne, IN native isn’t going to be looking for a big score in free agency, and the Cubs are probably at the top of his list. Not only did he grow up somewhat nearby as a Cubs fan, but he played his college ball at Parkland College in Champaign. And the big kicker? His older brother, Dan, is the head groundskeeper at Wrigley Field.

Following the line of thinking in a Twitter convo between Bryan Smith of Bleacher Nation and Jon Becker of FanGraphs, I’d say something in the $7-9 million range makes sense. Maybe a base of $5 million for 2023 with some performance incentives and then a $7-10 million “mutual” option for ’24 that includes a $3 million buyout. Kiermaier is a below-average hitter and would require the Cubs to do a very good job of adding offense elsewhere, but his glove is what matters here.

Now we turn to Cody Bellinger, who the Dodgers will probably non-tender rather than paying an estimated $18.1 million for his final year of arbitration eligibility. The former Rookie of the Year and MVP — hey, the Cubs used to have one of those — has followed a meteoric rise over his first three seasons by crashing back to earth over the last three.

Since the start of the 2020 season, he is slashing .203/.272/.376 with a 78 wRC+ that is lower than Kiermaier has generated in any individual campaign. Bellinger has played pretty solid defense in center over that same time, however, accumulating 4 defensive runs saved over more than 2,200 innings. He’s also a very good baserunner and can bring that talent to bear if he’s able to reach, which is becoming less of a sure thing all the time.

One of my biggest concerns with Bellinger, and I have several, is that his walk rate has plummeted since 2019. After peaking at 14.4% that year, he’s fallen to 12.3%, 8.9%, and 6.9% in each subsequent season. That’s a very frightening trend when contrasted with a strikeout rate that has risen markedly from 16.4% to 27.3% in that same time.

Bellinger’s power has dropped off as well, though his 19 homers in ’22 were respectable in light of the position he played. That said, there’s a lot of inconsistency in his game and I’m not sure the fix is as simple as getting a change of scenery.

If we keep the conversation limited to just these two — another wrinkle would be to trade for Michael A. Taylor — it’s a matter of choosing more of a known commodity over the hope that a former phenom can find himself. Provided Kiermaier’s hip gets the green light, he would be my pick by a wide margin because I feel more confident in knowing what the Cubs would be getting.

Bellinger is several years younger and has produced elite-level offense in the past, I just don’t really trust that he’s a replacement-level bat at this point. While his ceiling is much higher than Kiermaier’s, his floor is much lower.

Provided the Cubs are able to make a bigger splash with an infield bat and another DH/1B type to complement Matt Mervis, the offensive dimension of a short-term centerfielder won’t matter as much. This is about improving their defense up the middle to help out a staff that figures to give up a lot of contact even after requisite additions.

Give me Kiermaier, Carlos Correa or Trea Turner, José Abreu, Koudai Senga, a game-managing catcher to split time with Yan Gomes, and a couple of experienced arms for the bullpen. With a little tinkering around the edges and some production from young hitters like Mervis, I think the Cubs could make a little noise.

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