Spring Training Battles: Center Field
The Cubs are a little over two weeks into spring training with about three weeks before Opening Day. It's time to check in on the yearly ritual of spring training battles. What's the fun of spring training without a little competition? The Cubs have a few spots up for grabs and today I'll take a look at the center field spot between Felix Pie and Sam Fuld.
The Cubs had the opportunity this offseason to shore up center field with a more reliable veteran, as a few stars hit the market including Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones
. The Cubs were obviously determined to give their youngsters a shot at the job, as they didn't even bother to call Hunter, which leads to the obvious conclusion that they probably didn't call any of the available center field free agents. We'll all soon find out if that confidence will be rewarded.
Felix Pie has been one of the Cubs top prospects and usually the Cubs top prospect ever since he joined the organization as a wide-eyed 17-year old out of the Dominican Republic. Pie has often been compared to the Cubs last great center field prospect, Corey Patterson, both being left-handed hitters with five-tool talent and questionable strike zone judgement. A tenous comparison, superficial at best, and, to be honest, a lazy comparison. While Corey Patterson struggled with each promotion in the minors and was truly rushed to the majors, Pie has taken each promotion in stride, often putting up better numbers than the previous stop.
Let's compare the two after the jump....
(Note: Minor league OBP is compiled with available data)
While they do share similar K/BB ratios (2.63 for Pie and 2.68 for Patterson) and career OPS numbers, Pie has almost twice as many minor league at-bats. More importantly, he's almost twice as good. Corey's numbers are inflated by his one good year in lo-A ball, while Pie has continually progressed. And what doesn't show in the numbers is the difference in personalities. While Corey has been marked with the "uncoachable" tag (maybe he's just stubborn or stupid), Pie is known for being eager to please and willing to adjust his game. Had the Cubs remained patient with Corey, they would have had a much better idea of exactly how poor a player he'd end up being.
Sam Fuld's minor league career hasn't been dogged with the same ridiculous comparisons as Pie, but he has struggled with injuries. The 10th round pick out of Stanford has had a tough time making it through a full season with hip, oblique and shoulder injuries, some attributed to his hard-nosed style of play. He's remained consistent with the bat though, putting up a line of 297/377/417 (794 OPS) as a minor leaguer. He certainly helped his cause by being named the AFL MVP with a line of 402/496/626 (1.118 OPS). But before you get too excited about that MVP award, remember he's in a class with Chip Cannon, Eric Duncan, Chris Shelton, Jason Dubois and Ken Harvey.
Defensively, both players are considered a plus and both probably have the arms and range to play any of the three outfield spots. Fuld has a reputation as a player that will run through a wall for you and he nearly did last September for the Cubs, with this highlight reel catch against the ivy. Pie showcased his arm in his very first game, gunning down Russ Branyan to preserve the tie, in a game the Cubs eventually lost. Either one will likely make the Cubs pitchers very happy.
PECOTA has Pie projected at 291/344/480 (824 OPS and 3.8 WARP) which would put his OPS fourth among NL center fielders last year, with at least 350 plate appearances. While that might be a bit kind, it is, at least, encouraging. Sam Fuld comes in at 265/334/369 (703 OPS and 2.5 WARP), which would put him in Juan Pierre territory.
So heading into camp, it looked like Pie was probably the favorite, based on both talent, past performance and future projections. But anybody can get hot in March, so how have they been doing so far? Well, Pie has staked his claim, hitting a robust 321/406/607 in about 32 plate appearances. Fuld has showed that top of the order patience that has been expected of him with 8 walks and a 455 OBP, but has had problems finding holes in the defense, hitting a paltry .143 in his 22 plate appearances. Manager Lou Piniella has already acknowledged that Pie has taken the early lead. But, as mentioned, anyone can get hot over a few weeks and Fuld could still catch fire.
It's my opinion though, that it's time to see what Pie can do in the majors. I understand the desire to supplement him with a right-handed hitting counterpart, as he's historically struggled versus lefties in his career. Beyond that, Piniella should pencil him in regularly at the 7 or 8 spot in the lineup and let his glove make up for the offensive learning curve that any 23-year old in the majors will have to go through.
Coming Up Next: The Starting Rotation