Sometimes, transaction news comes in a torrent. Check Twitter at the right time, and you’ll see four or five reporters confirming that X signed a new contract or Y traded Z to the Dodgers; generally Ken Rosenthal or Jeff Passan will have the news first, or tip their caps to the reporter who did.
In other instances, the news comes as a trickle, as is the case with Steven Souza Jr. Last Friday, Rosenthal reported that the Cubs had agreed to a contract with Souza, and followed that with another tweet indicating that the parties had agreed to a big league deal. As of press time, the details of the contract are still unknown and it appears that Souza needs to complete a physical before anything becomes official. We’ll update this post when we can confirm the particulars.
But this is one of those deals where the financials are secondary, and you just feel good for the player. Souza, you’ll recall, was badly injured in a freak accident during the penultimate game of Arizona’s Cactus League campaign last year. As he came around to score a run in the fourth inning, his foot slipped on home plate. He hyperextended his knee and in the ensuing tumble, tore his ACL, LCL, and posterior lateral capsule, and also suffered a partial tear in his posterior cruciate ligament. Needless to say, his season was over.
It was a blow for the Diamondbacks, who were thin in the outfield at the time, but even worse for Souza, who has constantly battled injuries throughout his career. In just the last five years, he’s suffered a broken hand, a labrum tear in his hip that required surgery, and a nagging pectoral injury that limited his production even when healthy enough to suit up.
It was the pectoral that dogged him throughout 2018, a disappointing follow-up campaign to what had looked like a breakout season. In 2017, finally healthy after hip surgery, Souza put up the best numbers of his career. He hit .239/.351/.459 with 30 homers in Tampa, good for a 121 wRC+ and nearly 4 WAR. The pectoral injury limited him to just 72 games in 2018 though, and his production cratered. He hit just five homers and his wRC+ fell to the mid-80s.
Between the knee injury last spring and Souza’s sub-replacement level production in 2018, a big league deal this winter was no foregone conclusion. As a power hitter with good (but not great) on-base skills and limited defensive value, he has the kind of profile that has struggled to find traction on the free agent market in recent years. He’s also three years and a serious knee surgery removed from his last productive campaign. Now on the wrong side of 30, he seemed like the kind of player more likely to get a minor league offer with an invitation to spring training than a major league contract.
Instead, he’s found the perfect fit with the Cubs, a team that has otherwise almost gone out of its way to avoid the free agent market. Souza’s contract is only the second major league deal they’ve offered this winter (provided that you can’t Ryan Tepera’s split contract as a big league deal), a period in which they’ve neither tried to boost their squad nor traded the kind of impact talent that would help kickstart a rebuild. As Chicago prepares to take one more shot with the remaining core from their 2016 championship team, Souza’s arrival could help paper over some of the cracks in the club’s outfield.
While nothing about Souza’s signing inherently prevents the Cubs from landing a bigger fish, Chicago’s behavior this winter suggests they’re not interested in that kind of deal (and with the news today that Nicholas Castellanos is taking his talents to Cincinnati, there aren’t a lot of big fish left). If this concludes their offseason investment in the outfield, Souza will slot in as one of the club’s two reserves. The Cubs don’t necessarily have an automatic starter at any one outfield position: Jason Heyward, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., and Kyle Schwarber saw quite a bit of time in various spots, and Kris Bryant played some in right and left field as well. Souza has primarily played right field throughout his career, and he figures to spell Schwarber and perhaps Heyward in the corners on days the Cubs face a lefty.
Should that prove the case, Souza’s signing ought to make the Cubs lineup a bit better. He actually doesn’t have particularly large platoon splits: He’s notched a 101 wRC+ against righties in his career and has been only modestly better against lefties (108 wRC+), mostly thanks to a slightly higher batting average and a better walk rate when he has the platoon advantage. But while Souza can hit against everyone, Heyward and Schwarber have really struggled against southpaws:
The case for splitting time in the OF
||2019 wRC+ vs. LHP
||Career wRC+ vs. LHP
||2019 wRC+ vs. RHP
||Career wRC+ vs. RHP
Provided that Souza’s knee is healthy enough to play the outfield regularly and in some approximation of his previous form, he should be an upgrade on days the Cubs face a lefty and a useful bat off the bench when he’s not starting. In an era of three-man benches, this kind of player feels like a long lost luxury, though the bat-first extra outfielder will likely become more common with 26-man rosters and a new rule that requires teams to field at least 13 position players. If healthy, he should fill the role capably.
A strong offseason could have made Chicago the favorites in a tight but mediocre NL Central; instead, the club’s self-imposed austerity has helped keep the race wide open. For a relatively small transaction, the Souza deal says quite a bit about how the Cubs view themselves. Signing Souza at all demonstrates that the organization is willing to make improvements around the edges of a team that should win 80+ games and compete for a spot in the playoffs again. But the lack of bigger moves indicates that management is ready to pivot if the Cubs stumble out of the gate; Souza’s signing only corroborates that course.