Cubs in Position to Weather Soler Injury

In a season that has been a surprising success for the Chicago Cubs, their young outfielder Jorge Soler has experienced ups and downs. While fellow rookies Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Kyle Schwarber have been getting big hits and playing stellar defense (at least in the case of Russell), Soler has struggled to find his power stroke and to play quality defense in right field.

Making things worse, the guy just can’t seem to stay on the field. The Cubs have announced that Soler is hitting the disabled list for the second time this season, this time with a strained left oblique. There’s only a little more than a month before the regular season is over, and with his timetable for recovery reportedly at least a month, one setback probably ends his season.

Immediately, social media broke out with discussions about how badly this affected the Cubs in the near future. Some think this is a huge hit, others think it’s not such a big deal. The Cubs will be shuffling their roster a bit to fill in for Soler in right field, likely moving Chris Coghlan out there and having the recently activated Tommy La Stella play at second base.

15 August 2015:   Chicago Cubs Right field Jorge Soler (68) [9540] in action during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox at US Cellular Field in Chicago, IL.

It’s this alignment that I think makes the absence of Soler tolerable for the Cubs. As previously mentioned, Soler was a bit rough in the field this year. According to Defensive Runs Saved at Fangraphs.com, Soler has -7 DRS in just 90 games played this season. A fielder with -15 DRS for an entire season is labeled as “awful,” which gives you an idea of where Soler falls. He often takes poor routes to the ball, and it’s possible that a diving attempt at a fly ball on Thursday could’ve caused this injury.

Coghlan isn’t much better in his career, although he’s been a decent fielder on the opposite side of the outfield this season. As a left fielder, Chris Coghlan has been worth exactly zero DRS, which means he’s been a fairly average fielder. He might lose a little bit moving over to right field, as it can be notoriously difficult at Wrigley Field. But at any rate, the worst case scenario is that Coghlan is a marginal upgrade over Soler in the field.

At the same time, Coghlan is a poor defender at second base. La Stella, his replacement, isn’t exactly a Gold Glove-winner either, but he’s an average to above average defender, which makes him an instant upgrade over Coghlan. So the defense as a whole is likely improved by the new alignment.

Offensively, switching out Soler for La Stella isn’t ideal by any means, but the contact rates could go up significantly. La Stella only has struck out 11.2 percent of the time in his 95 career games in the Major Leagues, compared to Soler’s 28.4 percent between this year and last.

Neither batter will hit for a high average, and the difference in career walk rates are slim. The big difference at the plate is that Soler hits rockets and has power for days, while La Stella has only hit 24 home runs in 1,718 professional plate appearances. But Soler’s power was part of his struggle this season, with his slugging percentage down at .385 and having only knocked out seven homers.

Overall, I wouldn’t say there is an inherent benefit of switching La Stella for Soler, but I don’t think the negative is all that great. Between Schwarber, Rizzo, Bryant, and Coghlan, the Cubs have plenty of power but also lots of strikeouts. If anything, La Stella helps balance the lineup by providing more contact and less K’s.

The real place where there could be a drop off for the Cubs is in the depth department. Simply put, had the Cubs chosen to do so, they could have had La Stella on the bench waiting to be used in whatever role the Cubs had chosen. With Soler on the disabled list, it thrusts La Stella into the lineup on a near everyday basis. If he struggles at the plate, where do they go from there? Starlin Castro? Maybe Chris Denorfia in right field and Coghlan back at second base? Maybe calling up Javier Baez?

05 April 2015: Chicago Cubs second baseman Tommy La Stella (11) steals second base as the Chicago Cubs play the St Louis Cardinals on opening night at Wrigley Field, Chicago, Il. The St Louis Cardinals defeated the Chicago Cubs, 3-0

So I understand the argument for depth, because this injury certainly pushes everyone on the depth chart up a spot. But the Cubs are a week away from September roster expansion, at which point they can still add Matt Szczur, Mike Olt, Javier Baez, and others. Will they really feel the hit of losing Soler, even if La Stella struggles? I’m not so sure they will, given the amount of other players they have waiting in the wings.

The Cubs have won 20 of their last 24 games and are now 6.5 games ahead of the Giants in the wild card race. With a three-game series in San Francisco starting later tonight, the Cubs are hitting an important part of their final stretch. If Jorge Soler’s season is indeed over, it’s a shame for him and for the Cubs, who could certainly use him in the playoffs.

But do I think the Cubs chances of holding off the Giants or catching the Pirates are measurably worse with Soler on the shelf? No. The Cubs are going to be fine.

Stats from Fangraphs.com

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