This is the fifth in a series of position-by-position analyses about the Cubs entering the offseason.
1. What is Albert Almora Jr.’s future?
Given the pleas from his supporters for more playing time, it’s somewhat remarkable Almora played in a career-high 152 games with 479 plate appearances.
Almora was serviceable in a variety of roles: providing the offense a lift during parts of April, May and June; playing highlight-reel defense in center field; and displaying pinch-hitting prowess late in the season. He produced a .368 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot despite seeing his opportunities diminish after the arrival of Daniel Murphy on Aug. 22.
Almora batted a respectable .282 against right-handed pitchers, but his on-base percentage dipped 15 points to .323 against righties and he grounded into 12 double plays. With the Cubs facing a plethora of right-handed starters, Almora appeared to be a good fit in the fifth or sixth spot.
His right-handed bat is an asset against teams with plenty of left-handed pitchers, but the Cubs are at a crossroads in terms of evaluating talent versus production. Almora is only 24 but doesn’t have much power — a tool the Cubs lacked in 2018.
The Cubs didn’t attempt to re-sign Jon Jay after the 2017 season because they wanted to provide more playing time for Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Almora. In the case of Almora, they must decide whether his on-base percentage will increase and his strikeouts will decrease, or if he will be better-served on another team.
2. Is Kyle Schwarber’s power too valuable to trade?
From this corner, yes. Schwarber’s 26 home runs was the second-highest total on the team, although Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras figure to hit more in 2019 than they did this year.
Schwarber increased his batting average by 27 points and cut down his strikeouts by 10 despite 24 more plate appearances than he had in 2017.
Defensively, Schwarber made his biggest improvement as manager Joe Maddon eventually allowed him to stay in left field for the entire game in victories in late August after pulling him early in the season. Only Dodgers right fielder Yasiel Puig had more outfield assists (12) than Schwarber’s 11.
The improvements seem to indicate Schwarber’s value has increased. Would he bring enough in return that the Cubs might risk the loss of power by moving him?
3. Was 2018 as good as it gets for Jason Heyward?
A hamstring injury on Aug. 30 sidelined Heyward for more than two weeks, disrupted the rhythm he had displayed at the plate and led to a .222 average and .263 on-base percentage in September. The most noticeable difference was he reverted to using his arms more than his wrists, resulting in the soft contact that accounted for a .230 average and .325 slugging percentage in his first season with the Cubs in 2016.
Heyward won’t be known for his power, but he did raise his average by 11 points while striking out only 60 times in 489 plate appearances. Most impressive, he batted .324 with runners in scoring position and .346 with runners in scoring position with two outs.
“(Hitting coach) Chili Davis has done a good job of getting him from where he was to now,” a National League scout said.
But that was almost two weeks before the Cubs fired Davis on Thursday after only one season, leaving Heyward to work under his third hitting coach in as many seasons.
The same scout observed that Heyward, 29, has lost a step and doesn’t throw as well as he once did. Nevertheless, his plus defense in center field as well as right is welcome for a pitching staff that relies heavily on its defense.
That is one strong consideration if the Cubs make a push for free agent Bryce Harper, although resolving the shortstop situation remains paramount.
Don’t expect Heyward to opt out of the final five years of his eight-year, $184 million contract. And keep in mind that two other teams offered more money before Heyward signed with the Cubs before the 2016 season.
4. Can Ian Happ cut down on his strikeouts?
According to one scout, it might take changes in his swing.
“He has a bad low-ball swing,” the scout said. “The launch angle will kill him.”
Happ has averaged 2.5 at-bats per strikeout during his first two seasons, although he showed better discipline during the final week of the season and had a .353 on-base percentage.
The switch-hitting Happ presents a tough call for the Cubs. He is only 24, possesses good power, can play multiple positions adequately and runs well. One scout agreed with Maddon’s decision to play Happ more frequently in center field, believing his routes to the ball were more precise.
Happ managed to avoid a demotion to the minors this year despite a rough start that caused him to lose the leadoff job three weeks into the season.
Happ was 7-for-23 (.304) with two home runs and four walks as a pinch hitter, but he’s too young and talented to be pigeonholed into that role. Like Almora, he could benefit from more guaranteed playing time elsewhere.
5. Can Ben Zobrist duplicate his 2018 performance?
The script couldn’t have been written and followed more perfectly. Minutes after the Dodgers eliminated the Cubs in the 2017 NL Championship Series, Zobrist vowed to embark on a strength program after allowing his sore left wrist to heal.
He responded at age 37 with contributions deeper than his .305 average and .378 on-base percentage. He epitomized the meaning of “team at-bat” by striking out once per 11.5 plate appearances and batting .307 with runners in scoring position.