On the Nature of Ceilings

And What it Means for the Cubs

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

Kyle Schwarber transformed his body this offseason. He trimmed down and is faster and lighter than ever before.

David Kaplan decided to write about the transformation and found at least one rival executive willing to go on the record.

“I expect him to be a real force in the Cubs lineup,” the executive said. “I think he has a chance to be as good a hitter as they have in their order.”

The word “ceiling” is never mentioned in these quotes, but the idea is referenced.

The anonymous executive suggested we haven’t seen the best of Schwarber yet. David Kaplan claimed Cubs brass views Schwarber as part of the core.

Ceilings exist in a strange space. Baseball fans have a general idea of the word’s meaning in the context of the sport. But no such definition exists outside of baseball’s lexicon.

Dictionary.com defines “ceiling” as “the overhead interior surface of a room.”

Nothing to do with baseball. But it’s not hard to see why this word is used in a baseball context.

Let me offer a definition: A ceiling is the approximate upper limit of a baseball player’s ability.

You now have a working definition.

We can debate at what point in a player’s career they have plateaued. Analysts have long attempted to answer this question.

Scouts generally agree that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. We have to make judgement calls. And humans aren’t generally good at that.

But I am a fool. And fools must try.

First question — Who on the Cubs has not yet hit his ceiling?

I could be pedantic and construct an argument for every player on the Cubs. But I’d rather you not end up hating me.

For the sake of time and my sanity, let’s restrict this discussion to position players. Pitchers are far too fickle.

This leaves us with Javier Baez, Addison Russell, Ian Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Willson Contreras. These players are all young and are still in the early stages of their careers.

Now that we have our group to examine, a second question arises — What are these players’ ceilings?

This question is much tougher to answer. Every observer will have a different answer. And these answers are rarely expressed in exactly the same manner.

Scouting grades are too inside baseball (pardon the phrase). And vague platitudes won’t do the trick either.

Metrics, while imperfect, will have to do.

The following table displays the vital career statistics of these players thus far.

Let’s start at the top with Russell.

The belief with Russell has been that there’s certainly more contact potential in his bat. And he’s shown that at times. However, Russell saw decay in his walk rate during his difficult 2017. He’ll need to improve upon this to reach his potential.

Russell is a former top-10 prospect, so we can safely say he has the pedigree and elite defensive skills already. But he is an unfinished product at the plate.

Here’s the good news — Russell improved in both hard-hit rate and line drive rate in 2017. So the truth is that further growth is likely on the way. Russell could easily be a perennial All-Star.

Albert Almora Jr. and Javier Baez are players I want to discuss in tandem.

The pair have both been lauded for their defensive acumen. Almora has unique instincts for center field and Baez a rare mix of versatility, range and fearlessness.

Almora and Baez also share an inability to walk. Both ultimately must rely on other offensive skills to survive at the highest level.

Almora has already shown an ability to make contact along with modest power. He will have to improve upon a career 84 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, though. If Almora can hit righties, he could wind up as a 3–4 WAR player annually.

Baez’s power potential is stratospheric. And he finally showed that in 2017, posting his highest SLG % and ISO to date. He also further cut down on his strikeouts.

Should Baez make a bit more contact and maintain his power gains, he should go from being one of baseball’s most unpredictably fun players to a one-of-a-kind superstar.

Ian Happ represents possibly the largest question mark among the Cubs’ young position players.

Happ succeeded immediately upon his arrival in the majors in 2017. He was a pleasant surprise, moving between center field, the corner outfield and second base while hitting 13 percent above league average.

But scouts remain divided about his defense and most believe he will have to cut down on his swing-and-miss.

Happ looks like an above-average regular, but not necessarily a star. But I have been proven wrong before.

I already spoke about Schwarber. And my opinion of him is similar to that of the rival executive.

Schwarber posted a second-half line of .253/.335/.559 in 2017. The first-half struggles still happened, but I would bet on Schwarber being closer to the second-half version in 2018.

And this brings me to Willson Contreras.

Contreras has the highest ceiling of this group of players. I could also argue for Russell or Schwarber or even Baez. But Contreras is my choice.

Catchers who can hit above league average while providing excellent defense, good pitch framing skills and confidence in dealing with a pitching staff are very rare. Contreras is all of these things.

A healthy Contreras could very well be the best catcher in baseball. And possibly an MVP candidate.

The final question — What does all of this mean for the Cubs?

These young Cubs position players have a unique blend of high floors and very high ceilings. It’s not a stretch to say that every one of these players could make multiple All-Star teams in the near future.

The Cubs are currently projected by FanGraphs to win 92 games this season. But given the fact that none of these players have yet shown their full abilities, I would be willing to bet the over.

The Cubs are a team of high ceilings. And that is something you should be excited about.

David Blumberg currently serves as a play-by-play commentator for Smithville Fiber in Bloomington, IN. He harbors a distant dream of someday being the Cubs’ radio play-by-play voice. For now, he is a “humble,” baseball-loving comic book nerd. You can follow him on Twitter @DGBlumberg for amazing takes on baseball, movies, beer and much more.