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Baffoe: In Praise Of Chris Coghlan

By Tim Baffoe--

(CBS) Sometimes the old sports platitude "The best trades are the ones you don't make" is used to self-placate surly fans smarting over some stagnation by their favorite team's front office. We love trades because when it comes to sports we're like children fixing a meal — add familiar flavors never before combined with the dish and it has to turn out good, right? Then we bite into that salami sandwich with chocolate syrup and learn a valuable lesson filled with Guy Fieri-esque nightmares.

The Chicago Cubs needed to get Swiss Army knife Ben Zobrist. He's a familiar flavor, he's one of manager Joe Maddon's favorite players, he can give a rest to various infielders and outfielders multiple times a week to keep Maddon's "fresh" theme going, he's not Starlin Castro, etc.

The Cubs didn't get Ben Zobrist.

OK, fine, no biggie. What was that? Chase Utley?

The Cubs needed to get Chase Utley. He's a familiar flavor, he's a proven six-time All-Star veteran with playoff experience, he's on a hot streak in an injury-condensed season, he's not Starlin Castro, etc.

The Cubs didn't get Chase Utley.

But as they find themselves with a four-game lead for the final National League wild-card spot, not adding a familiar flavor to the dish hasn't seemed to ruin it. Because, meanwhile, the Cubs have had Chris Coghlan all along.

"Shoot, I'm not trying to be Utley one bit, man," Coghlan told Comcast SportsNet in a story about him potentially being the Zobrist or Utley the Cubs hoped for. "I'm not trying to do Utley. I'm just trying to do me. That's it."

"Doing me" -- which has seen Coghlan move from predominantly being a left fielder to predominantly manning second base this month -- has contributed to that wild-card lead and the Cubs' 13-4 record since the MLB trade deadline.

Coghlan boasts a 2.7 WAR, per Fangraphs. Zobrist's is 1.9, and Utley's, despite his resurgence, is -0.5. Coghlan sports a 114 wRC+ despite being plagued all year by bad luck — his .279 BABIP is 36 points below his career average and with just a little over a month left should still snap back to something more positive.

His 14 homers are third on a team feared for its bats, behind Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant (both of whom have way more plate appearances than Coghlan). A former Rookie of the Year winner with the Florida Marlins, Coghlan had never had a double-digit homer season prior to 2015.

"When I was younger, I valued batting average and hits," he said in July. "Now I value slugging and on-base. That's how you win games. You have to get on base to score runs, and you slug to knock them in. If you look at my numbers, you'll see they're different, and that's because my values have changed. That said, I'm still instinctual. I still want to be aggressive. I want to hit every pitch until my eyes tell me otherwise."

He's not lying about the changes in his hitting approach. Last month Alex Chamberlain analyzed the Coghlan of 2010-'13 (which Chamberlain calls "Bad Coghlan") and that of this season. As a lefty, Coghlan has always been pitched low and away, yet this season his contact rate on those particular pitches has been night and day to that of his pre-Cub self.  He's also hitting more fly balls and pulling the ball more than "Bad Coghlan."

"Coghlan has essentially improved, or at least optimized, every facet of his approach concerned with hitting for power, and it shows in the results," Chamberlain wrote.

He's been swinging at pitches outside of the zone at a career-low rate and swinging at ones in the zone at a career-high rate to boot. You can call it maturity or call it adhering the organizational philosophy of taking pitches. The only Cubs with more than 100 plate appearances and a better strikeout rate than Coghlan are (surprisingly) Castro, Jonathan Herrera and Rizzo.

"For a team loaded with young talent, the Cubs salvaged — or, perhaps, made — an oldie but goodie in Coghlan," Chamberlain concluded. "Barring injury, he should end the season at least a 3-WAR player — not bad for $2.5 million — with probably 15 homers and steals apiece with a respectable triple-slash line…"

And for what it's worth, Zobrist and Utley both have higher paychecks this season than Coghlan's.

So while it was almost reflexive to want the Cubs to make a trade and try to make a new flavor with this team, all along they've had one that has been working out just fine. And arguably "doing Chris Coghlan" has been tastier than what were thought to be more exciting alternatives.

Tim Baffoe is a columnist for Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

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