For a free agency class chalked with bats, the Cubs have been on the lower end of the spending spectrum this offseason. That’s not to say that a hitter was of dire need, but the opportunity was there to bulk up their depth.
Up to Friday, January 24th, the Cubs have been primarily discreet in that department, with their main additions being Hernán Pérez, Carlos Asuaje, Noel Cuevas, and Ian Miller. With a limited budget and a depth chart that’s primarily set already, it was understandable that they were buying low.
However, Steven Souza Jr. has very different upside than the other guys the Cubs have signed. This upside, potentially, could lead to a very fruitful season for Souza and be a valuable piece for the infrastructure of the Cubs.
Souza is a complicated hitter to dissect, mostly because of the small pedigree and horrific injury that he suffered before the 2019 season. While he had flaring injuries that confined him to 272 PA in 2018, he suffered a brutal ACL, LCL, partial PCL tear, and posterior-lateral capsule tear before the 2019 season.
What makes Souza’s upside so impressive is his 2017 season. In a 617 PA sample, he posted a .239/.351/.459 slash line, 121 wRC+, .348 wOBA, and 3.9 fWAR/150 games. In a qualified PA leaderboard, he was 42nd in fWAR at 3.8, 39th in offensive rating at 19.5, and 44th in wRC+.
Another powerful fact of Souza’s value with the bat, in 2017, was in the form of raw power and quality of contact. To start, he ranked 44th in ISO at .220. That, however, doesn’t include his satisfactory quality of contact. His Hard Hit% was 37.9, which ranked in the 64th percentile, and his exit velocity was 88.0 mph, which ranked in the 53rd percentile. His barrel/PA% was an adequate 6.5% while his barrel/BBE% was at an even more adequate 11.5%. They ranked 80th and 44th in the league, respectively.
His quality of contact also contributes to his good expected stats. His xwOBA ranked 3 points above his wOBA, at .351. It also ranked 26 points above the league average .325 and 100th in the league. Part of this has to do with his quality of contact, as signified by his .444 xwOBACON and 13.6 BB%. The former ranked 24th in the league while the latter ranked 12th. He slightly underperformed his xSLG%, however, by a measly 6 points.
What’s also impressive about Souza is his defense, which makes his upside a valuable 4-tool player. His range has always been at least adequate, but in 2017 it was tremendous. This is perhaps best showcased by his 8 OAA, all of which came in right field. He also had an outfielder jump of 2.2 feet vs average. These ranked him in the 95th and 97th percentiles, respectively.
When converting his defense as a whole to runs, things get slightly more complicated. Using OAA only, as proposed by Tom Tango, it must be multiplied by 0.8. This would give Souza’s range, in terms of runs saved rather than outs, a fantastic rating of 6.4. However, it’s possible to take a step forward in this regard. When combining his OAA and ARM in a runs scale, as proposed by Mike Sutton, Souza’s rating climbs to 7.1. This rating helps to measure his total defensive output to runs, and the results are prodigious.
In terms of the contract value, it should be very facile to be worth the cost he was given. Souza and the Cubs agreed to a 1-year, $1M guaranteed deal, with $1M each as a maximum in non-IL and performance bonuses, per Jordan Bastian. When looking at value, which converts a player’s fWAR into what it was roughly worth in cash, Souza has been worth that maximum of $3M in every season with a PA minimum of 400. In 2015, he was worth $11.9M, 2016 he was worth $6.9M, and 2017 a fantastic $30.1M. While he did have a negative value in the 2014 and 2018 seasons, the former was a year consisting of 26 PA and he battled on-and-off injuries in the latter.
Souza’s role should be interesting with the Cubs, considering their surplus of arguable starters.
Souza should fit well into right field for possible platoon or everyday starter opportunities. This would likely shift Jason Heyward to center field for more of the season. While Heyward’s defense in right field is arguably elite, his defense in center field is still valuable. When using the rough total defense to runs conversion with his annual average innings played in CF since 2017 (282.3), it comes out to a rating of 1.2. Also, when factoring in positional adjustment in a theoretical 1,458 innings played sample, a center field rating is worth +2.5 while a right field rating is worth -7.5. If the center field rating is adjusted to Heyward’s innings played since 2017, it still comes out to an adequate +0.48.
Other valuable opportunities for the Cubs’s outfield, excluding Souza, would be to play Ian Happ in center field and Heyward in right. Happ, in his career, has been a valuable bat. In 1031 career PA, he has posted a .246/.340/.476 slash line, 112 wRC+, .343 wOBA (.334 xwOBA), and 2.3 fWAR/150. His glove, while being mediocre, isn’t awful. His career defense to runs conversion, when weighted to his annual average innings played at center field, has a rating of -0.2 with a positional adjustment of 0.47. Heyward in right field, as aforementioned, is a special piece. His defense to runs conversion, when using the same adjustments as the previous two, but in right field since 2017, has a rating of 7.5 with a positional adjustment of -4.1.
Souza was a well-needed addition to a lineup that already was adequately filled out. While him reaching his 2017 season again is unlikely, the chances of him fulfilling his value while being an adequate to above average piece for the Cubs are stronger. The general expectation isn’t high, but ones that Souza can easily exceed given the talent he has shown. This would really help him re-invigorate his career, as well as give the Cubs an extra boost for the 2020 season.
Stats provided by Baseball Savant: Hard Hit%, exit velocity, barrel/PA%, barrel/BBE%, xwOBA, xwOBACON, xSLG%, OAA, feet vs average, percentiles.
All other stats provided by FanGraphs.