One of the Cubs’ selling points with prized Japanese free agent Shohei Ohtani will be finding a place for him in the outfield when he’s not pitching.
That figures to be right field, where Jason Heyward has earned the National League Gold Glove Award for exceptional defense for the last two seasons since joining the Cubs.
Fortunately for the Cubs, Heyward has experience in center field and could switch from right to accommodate Ohtani.
In fact, there are other factors that could necessitate Heyward playing center field for perhaps more than the 21 starts he made in 2016 — provided he hits well enough to maintain consistent playing time.
One factor is Heyward’s experience in center prior to reaching the majors and his defensive excellence. There would be no significant drop-off in keeping runners from running wildly thanks to Ohtani’s powerful arm.
The other would be Ben Zobrist, who could play more in one of the corner outfield positions and give a majority of the second base duties to the more mobile Javier Baez.
About an hour after the Cubs were eliminated by the Dodgers in the NL Championship Series, Zobrist vowed to “fix some flaws” and become more reliable after an injury-plagued season.
Zobrist could be more useful at a corner outfield position, especially if Ian Happ or Kyle Schwarber are traded. And if Ohtani somehow selects the Cubs, that would give manager Joe Maddon plenty of options.
Albert Almora Jr. made improvements at the plate against right-handers in the second half of last season, but he or Happ could be deployed in left field against right-handers when Ohtani starts in right and Heyward in center.
Another consideration is the possibility of a trade involving Schwarber or Happ that could give more playing time to the player who stays.
Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted a potential Cubs lineup against right-handed starters that included Zobrist in the leadoff spot and playing second base, and left-handed hitters Schwarber, Ohtani and Heyward batting 5-7.
A lineup against left-handers could include Almora at leadoff, with Zobrist batting fifth and Heyward seventh. The Cubs could arrange their schedule to give Ohtani enough at-bats and still give him enough time and rest (especially when left-handers are facing them) to prepare for his starting pitching assignments.
But much of this script could depend on whether Heyward hits well enough to maintain a spot in the lineup.