Cubs: What will Joe Maddon’s lineup look like in 2016?


Cubs: What will Joe Maddon’s lineup look like in 2016?

HAZLETON, Pa. – Cubs fans and the Chicago media are obsessed with The Lineup. But the repetitive questions that seemed to wear down Lou Piniella don’t bother Joe Maddon.

The short answer is there is no answer – at least in the sense of a static 1-through-9 batting order. It will depend on the matchups, the scouting reports, the hot hands and whatever inspiration strikes Maddon while riding his bike or listening to a Pandora station in his office.  

It all starts with Jason Heyward.

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Beyond whatever Maddon’s beloved “Geek Department” discovers while sifting through the numbers, this still isn’t fantasy baseball. The Cubs manager needs to find out what makes the new $184 million man tick.   

“Lineup-wise, of course, having a conversation with Jason is going to be really important,” said Maddon, who’s bouncing around this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town this week, trying to grow his Hazleton Integration Project through another series of charity events.

“His comfort level regarding hitting leadoff would be an example. I’m not saying he’s going to hit leadoff. I want to know his comfort level before I make up my mind.”

Heyward has a career .353 on-base percentage and three seasons with at least 20 stolen bases on his resume. He’s hit .280 and gotten on base more than 35 percent of the time in 570 plate appearances as a leadoff guy.  

Ben Zobrist – who played nine seasons on Maddon’s unconventional Tampa Bay Rays teams – is another fill-in-the-blanks guy who can make contact, hit elite pitching and create even more defensive versatility.

Heyward and Zobrist (.355 career on-base percentage) can set the table for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – and set a patient, focused example for a lineup that had boom-or-bust potential.

“Zobrist can hit 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9,” Maddon said. “He doesn't care. He’s just out there to win. Primarily, when you look at it, you can start writing names down (and) I do like to go right-left, right-left as often as possible to mitigate the other team’s bullpen.

“However, if I don’t see a real negative left-hander on the other side – Rizzo’s hit lefties really well, so I don’t even look at him as left-handed – you can stack a little bit sometimes based on the other team’s bullpen. Sometimes you really don’t want to stack, because that could really take one of your guys out of the game, based on your ability to match up late.”

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The Cubs led the majors with 1,518 strikeouts last season – no other team even reached 1,400 – and featured nine players who finished with double-digit home runs. A Cubs official admitted the New York Mets did a great job of identifying weaknesses and breaking down their young hitters while sweeping the National League Championship Series.

“Rizz has his preferences,” Maddon said. “But you saw what he did last year – he moved up and down great. KB, same thing. Schwarber, again: ‘Hit me wherever, I don’t care.’ The catchers, they’ll probably be more towards the bottom of the batting order. But my biggest concern is balancing out 1, 2, 3, 4 and trying to keep a right-left, right-left kind of component. Zobrist being a switch-hitter helps.”    

It’s unclear if Heyward’s left-handed swing and 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame can replicate his 27-homer season with the Atlanta Braves in 2012, or how much more room he still has to grow as a player at the age of 26, after more than 3,400 plate appearances in the big leagues.   

Heyward is getting paid like a middle-of-the-order bat, but realistically the Cubs would feel like it’s a good return on their investment if he keeps being a productive hitter, Gold Glove outfielder and strong clubhouse presence.  

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The point is Theo Epstein's front office is giving an outside-the-box thinker so many options, especially if the Cubs keep Jorge Soler and Javier Baez instead of trading for a young pitcher, and Chris Coghlan and Tommy La Stella become valuable role players again.

“I’ve written a couple things down,” Maddon said, “primarily right-left, right-left, right-left kind of stuff. But conversationally, I need to talk to Jason first. It’s really important. To some guys, it matters a lot. And I really want to know how people feel.”

No doubt, Cubs fans and the national media feel like the possibilities for this team are endless.

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

Addison Russell is so over 2017: 'That's last year, don't want to talk about that'

MESA, Ariz. — “That’s last year, don’t want to talk about that.”

In other words, Addison Russell is so over 2017.

The Cubs shortstop went through a lot last year. He dealt with injuries that affected his foot and shoulder. He had a well-documented off-the-field issue involving an accusation of domestic abuse, which sparked an investigation by Major League Baseball. And then came the trade speculation.

The hot stove season rarely leaves any player completely out of online trade discussion. But after Theo Epstein admitted there was a possibility the Cubs could trade away one or more young position players to bolster the starting rotation, well, Russell’s name came up.

And he saw it.

“There was a lot of trade talk,” Russell said Saturday. “My initial thoughts were, I hope it doesn’t happen, but wherever I go, I’m going to try to bring what I bring to the table here. It’s a good thing that it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m happy being in a Cubs uniform, I want to be in a Cubs uniform, for sure. But there was some talk out there. If I got traded, then I got traded, but that’s not the case.”

No, it’s not, as the Cubs solved those pitching questions with free-agent spending, bringing in Yu Darvish and Tyler Chatwood to replace the departed Jake Arrieta and John Lackey. It means Russell, along with oft-discussed names like Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ and Javy Baez, are all still Cubs.

While the outside world might have expected one of those guys to be moved in some sort of blockbuster trade for Chris Archer or some other All-Star arm, the Cubs’ young core remains intact, another reason why they’re as much a favorite to win the World Series as any team out there.

“I’m really not surprised. The core is still here. Who would want to break that up? It’s a beautiful thing,” Russell said. “Javy and I in the middle. Schwarber, sometimes playing catcher but mainly outfield. And then (Kris Bryant) over there in the hot corner, and of course (Anthony) Rizzo at first. You’ve got a Gold Glover in right field (Jason Heyward). It’s really hard to break that up.

“When you do break that down on paper, we’ve got a lineup that could stack up with the best.”

This winter has been about moving on for Russell, who said he’s spent months working to strengthen his foot and shoulder after they limited him to 110 games last season, the fewest he played in his first three big league campaigns.

And so for Russell, the formula for returning to his 2016 levels of offensive aptitude isn’t a difficult one: stay on the field.

“Especially with the injuries, I definitely wanted to showcase some more of my talent last year than I displayed,” Russell said. “So going into this year, it’s mainly just keeping a good mental — just staying level headed. And also staying healthy and producing and being out there on the field.

“Next step for me, really just staying out there on the field. I really want to see what I can do as far as helping the team if I can stay healthy for a full season. I think if I just stay out there on the field, I’m going to produce.”

While the decrease in being on the field meant lower numbers from a “counting” standpoint — the drop from 21 homers in 2016 to 12 last year, the drop from 95 RBIs to 43 can in part be attributed to the lower number of games — certain rate stats looked different, too. His on-base percentage dropped from .321 in 2016 to .304 last year.

Russell also struggled during the postseason, picking up just six hits in 36 plate appearances in series against the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers. He struck out 13 times in 10 postseason games.

Of course, he wasn’t alone. That World Series hangover was team-wide throughout the first half of the season. And even though the Cubs scored 824 runs during the regular season, the second most in the National League and the fourth most in baseball, plenty of guys had their offensive struggles: Schwarber, Heyward and Ben Zobrist, to name a few.

“You can’t take anything for granted. So whenever you win a World Series or you do something good, you just have to live in the moment,” Russell said. “It was a tough season last year because we were coming off winning the World Series and the World Series hangover and all that. This year, we had a couple months off, a couple extra weeks off, and I think a lot of guys took advantage of that. I know I did. And now that we’re here in spring training, we’re going to get back at it.”

Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans


Cubs Talk Podcast: Discussing 5-man unit and where Montgomery fits into Cubs' plans

Jon Lester has arrived at Cubs camp, and he’s pleased with the new-look rotation full of potential aces. Kelly Crull and Vinnie Duber discuss the 5-man unit, and where Mike Montgomery fits into the Cubs’ plans.

Plus, Kelly and Vinnie talk Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber, along with the continuing free agent stalemate surrounding Jake Arrieta.

Listen to the full Cubs Talk Podcast right here: