As the Cubs have yet to sign a player to a major league deal, it's looking more and more like the team will have to hope for improvement from within. Here, I'm going to examine how three role-players from 2019 could enhance the team while receiving more playing time in 2020. All three of these players ended the season with an above-average wRC+, meaning they hit better than the league on average. All three also ended with around 1.5 FanGraphs WAR in part-time roles, suggesting they could be at least league-average given the playing time.
The real question is whether these players’ rate stats would suffer if they were deployed less selectively. The answer to that is difficult to determine, as teams don't platoon players in quite the same ways as they used to. For instance, Joe Maddon would pencil in Albert Almora against a righty sometimes if that pitcher threw high fastballs, despite Almora being a righty. Whereas simpler left/right platoon splits would make it easier to project how a player would fare in greater playing time, it is hard for a public analyst to determine how each of these players would be exposed when their weaknesses are more complicated than the handedness of the pitcher they're facing. Because of this, I'll focus more on the strengths of each player below to imagine what they could provide the Cubs in a realistic best-case scenario.
After starting the season in the minors, Ian Happ slashed .264/.333/.564 for a 127 wRC+ in 156 plate appearances with the big league club. This was obviously a small sample, but that would have been his best season mark (compared to 114 in 2017 and 106 in 2018). Happ had a high walk rate in 2018 (15.2%), but it was paired with an unsustainably high strikeout rate (36.1%). Both of those decreased in 2019 to 9.6% and 25.0% respectively. The strikeout rate decrease is encouraging, as that's one of the main reasons Happ was sent down to begin the season. If Happ found a more sustainable approach, he could be one of the best non-Bryzzo hitters on the Cubs.
The other knock against Happ has been his defense. Advanced defensive metrics are notoriously unreliable over a small sample size, but Statcast thought Happ was an above-average outfielder in 2019, though he remained a below-average infielder. Happ accrued -5 outs above average in center field in 2018, but after his stint in the minors, he was slightly above-average there (1 OAA). The other two major defensive metrics, Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating also had 2019 as Happ's best defensive season in the outfield on a rate basis. If Happ could hit and field as well in a full-time role as he did after returning from Iowa, he could be the Cubs’ starting center fielder, and one of their most valuable position players.
Victor Caratini had a bit of a breakout season in 2019. The backup catcher posted a 108 wRC+ in 279 plate appearances, a sizable improvement from his 65 wRC+ in 200 plate appearances the previous year. Caratini started the season hot (a 1.647 OPS in 17 plate appearances) before fracturing his hamate bone on April 11th. He struggled mightily after coming back from the injury before rebounding with a couple of hot stretches in the latter half which salvaged his season numbers.
Caratini provides an offensive profile which the Cubs lack as a high-contact bat. This, in addition to his status as Yu Darvish's personal catcher and a better framer than Willson Contreras, makes him a valuable part of the team. Caratini impressed the front office enough that they considered trading Contreras, their All-Star catcher, over the winter. I'm not quite sold on Caratini as a starting catcher, but if he manages to be more consistent offensively while maintaining his solid defense, he could once again be a quietly essential part of the team.
David Bote is one of only two players who the Cubs have managed to extend in the past couple years (along with Kyle Hendricks). The utility infielder is signed through 2024 for a total of $15M, with two club options in 2025 and 2026 for $7M and $7.6M respectively. While his contract alone is enough to make Bote valuable to the team, he's exceeded expectations in production as well. Despite his defensive miscues and tendency to whiff on high fastballs, Bote was still worth 1.5 FanGraphs WAR over just 356 plate appearances in 2019, meaning he profiles as an average major leaguer if he were given a full season of playing time.
Bote sneakily had the highest on-base percentage of any Cubs hitter in 2019 outside of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. He also continued to hit the ball harder than average last season and increased his average launch angle, although it didn't show in his expected batting line. As with Happ, Bote's defense has been questionable at times. Bote has actually rated fairly well according to some defensive metrics, but there isn't a consensus. From watching him, it seems like he has the general skills to be a good defender, though he is susceptible to odd misplays. I'm curious to see if he can reduce those and, if not completely remove, at least patch up the hole in his swing. If so, he could reach the ceiling his high exit velocity suggests.
These players are far from sure things, which is why the Cubs would have been wise to sign some players this offseason. However, it's not difficult to imagine any or all of Happ, Caratini, and Bote excelling while getting more playing time in 2020, and I'm looking forward to seeing what they can do given the opportunity.