Who will bat leadoff for Cubs? A look at the candidates — and if it really even matters

Who will bat leadoff for Cubs? A look at the candidates — and if it really even matters

On a team with few holes and championship expectations, who hits leadoff for the Cubs has become a prominent conversation.

You don't need to go back too far to discover that not having a prototypical leadoff hitter doesn't mean much of anything. After all, the Cubs lost Dexter Fowler, couldn't find anyone to consistently hit leadoff and still scored 822 runs, the second most in the National League.

But a new season and no additions to the lineup that put the leadoff conversation to rest means it's a talking point yet again. So who will hit leadoff for the Cubs in 2018?

"There’s very few real, legitimate No. 1 hitters out there these days, and when you find one, you like to hold on to it," Joe Maddon said earlier in spring training. "I think a lot of teams, they’ll put different guys up there. It’s almost like having a closer. If you don’t have a legitimate closer, it’s still OK to work the ninth inning in other ways. If you don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter, you can work it in other ways. I’m fine with that.

"I think we scored a lot of runs last year. We were fine with that. The conversation is what it is. I’m very comfortable with moving that around based on guys who get on base often. That’s the whole point. And when you can combine that with a guy that has a high on-base and then he hits homers, too, that’s even more attractive. We have a lot of guys who are capable. We’ll let it play out, you’ll see a lot of guys in the one hole throughout spring training. But I know by the time the season arrives, whoever we have hitting there, I’ll be happy with that."

Of course, there's room for improvement. Last season, only the bottom two spots in the lineup produced lower numbers than the leadoff hole, with the Cubs slashing .246/.324/.422 at the top of the order. Getting better there means being an even better team, all important when the expectations are World Series or bust.

But whether it matters a lot or a little, here's a list of candidates for the job.

Anthony Rizzo

Remember when Rizzo dubbed himself, jokingly of course, "the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time?" Albert Almora Jr. does.

"We have the best leadoff guy in the game with Rizzo," Albert Almora Jr. said earlier in spring training. "Five home runs in three days it felt like."

It was pretty impressive. All in all, Rizzo's 14 games batting leadoff yielded 15 hits, five homers, two doubles, a triple, 12 RBIs, 11 runs scored and six walks in 59 plate appearances.

"I said, ‘If I’m going to lead off this year, you’ve got to teach me.’ He said, ‘I am the best leadoff hitter in the world.’ ‘All right, you do it then.'"

Anthony, what do you say?


Well, that settles that.

Kyle Schwarber

Schwarber, as I'm sure no one has forgotten, was the Cubs' leadoff guy out of the gates last spring. It's not that he wasn't suited for it — he is really good at getting on base — but he really didn't succeed there. That Maddon decision didn't sit well with many fans, and it didn't look like a good idea at all when Schwarber was sent down to Triple-A for a spell in the middle of the campaign.

The slimmed-down Schwarber figures to be much better this year — and even in what was considered a disastrous 2017, he still hit 30 home runs — but the leadoff spot might not be the place for him.

Kyle, will you be batting leadoff again?

"Ask the manager," he said. "I think we’re all ears to that, and whatever he writes in there we’re all going to do."

Ben Zobrist

Because the Cubs don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter, Zobrist's name comes up. And he's fine with it, fitting the bill somewhat as a guy who gets on base and could set the table ahead of boppers like Kris Bryant and Rizzo.

"He’s definitely in the mix to do that," Maddon said of Zobrist. "He always works a good at-bat. I’ve always been comfortable with that, he’s done it in the past, so he’s capable. We haven’t decided that, but yes, of course he’s a candidate to do that."

"I know I can do it, but I have no idea," Zobrist said. "We have other guys that can do it, too. It’s not an easy position to hit in, I can say that. It takes a little bit of experience and practice to do it and be good at it, and some guys are more comfortable there than others. It hasn’t been one of my most comfortable spots to hit in over the course of my career, but I know I can do it if it comes to that."

That's the thing, though: Zobrist hasn't necessarily had great success out of the leadoff spot in his career. In fact, it's perhaps the worst spot, statistically, in his career to hit. His slash line in 887 career plate appearances at the top of the lineup is .241/.330/.389. Only batting ninth does he have lower career averages in all three of those categories. Last season, those numbers were kind of flipped during what was statistically the worst season of his career. He slashed .253/.330/.438 in 182 plate appearances leading off in 2017, so Maddon might be looking at Zobrist as a candidate from the "what have you done for me lately" perspective.

But then there's the question of how often Zobrist will even be in the lineup. Coming off that down 2017 and as his age continues to advance, Zobrist's playing time might take a hit in favor of younger guys like Almora, Ian Happ and Javy Baez. Plus, despite much talk of how great he's feeling after an injury-plagued 2017, Zobrist has been out of action through much of spring training with a back issue.

Kris Bryant

This one's kind of an off-the-wall suggestion, but one that's been talked about during the offseason. If Maddon's looking for a guy with great on-base skills, look no further than Bryant, who followed up the .385 on-base percentage of his MVP season with a .409 on-base percentage in 2017, good for fourth in the National League and seventh in baseball.

This doesn't seem likely, with Bryant seemingly entrenched in the two-hole, where he hit in all but 41 of his 151 games last season. But Maddon got creative with Rizzo last season, so maybe Bryant is an option should the leadoff spot become a real issue at some point during 2018.

Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.

Happ and Almora are getting leadoff love in the early days of Cactus League play. Happ already has a pair of homers out of the leadoff spot, including one off Madison Bumgarner. Given that that could be a center field platoon this season, platooning those two in the leadoff spot might end up being the way Maddon goes.

Last year, Almora dominated against left-handed pitchers, slashing .342/.411/.486 in his 125 plate appearances. Against righties, he slashed .271/.291/.420.

Last year, Happ had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage against righties, slashing .243/.334/.529. He had a better batting average against lefties, slashing .276/.313/.476. Nineteen of his 24 rookie homers came against right-handers.

A platoon between the two makes a lot of sense, though even if they spent the majority of the time at the top of the order, the way Maddon mixes and matches his lineups on a daily basis means it would not be at all surprising to see a whole host of different guys up there.

"I’ll do whatever they tell me to. I have enough confidence in myself where I can hit anywhere or play anywhere, it doesn’t really matter," Almora said. "I know Joe will take care of that, and I’ll just put my head down and play.

"We’re going to be great, we’re going to be fine. Anyone can hit leadoff, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to find ways to drive in runs and be the best team out there."

They did it without a prototypical leadoff man in 2017. Why should 2018 be any different?

Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

Another Cubs superstar deals with aftermath of hometown mass shooting

MESA, Ariz. — An example of just how prevalent gun violence is in the United States?

In the last few months, the hometowns of both faces of the Chicago Cubs have been rocked by mass shootings.

The Cubs’ roster is just 25 names long, and yet the two highest-profile of those names, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, have found themselves joining the national conversation about gun violence as their hometowns became some of the latest scenes of these shockingly common tragedies.

Rizzo left Cubs camp after Wednesday’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. He attended high school there and left Arizona to be with his community. According to ESPN, among the 17 people killed in the shooting were Rizzo’s former high school football coach and a relative of his agent.

Rizzo joined many online in sharing the opinion that action needs to be taken.

Rizzo, who is well known in Chicago and around baseball for his charitable efforts — he won last year’s Roberto Clemente Award — surprised no members of his Cubs family by opting to return to his hometown.

“It really speaks to who Anthony really is,” Bryant said Thursday. “Yeah, we’re baseball players and the season’s about to start. But something like that happens in his community, he’s right there with them. Anthony’s just a role model for everybody on the team and in Chicago and the whole country. He’s just such an amazing person that he’s going down there and doing anything he can do to help.”

Bryant had to answer similar questions not five months ago after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history struck his hometown of Las Vegas on Oct. 1 of last year. Bryant and Washington Nationals star Bryce Harper, also a Las Vegas native, appeared together in messages of support as the postseason began and the Cubs and Nationals played against one another in the National League Division Series.

Bryant recalled the emotions he felt at the time, though he didn’t join Rizzo in voicing much of an opinion in his comments to the media Thursday.

“Oct. 1 in Vegas was such a terrible day with so many of my friends and family being involved in that,” Bryant said. “My sister in law was there, just a lot of people I knew. Obviously you wish those things did not happen, but the community coming together after that, being there this offseason and seeing ‘Vegas Strong’ everywhere, it’s made me so proud to be from Las Vegas that everybody in the community came together.

“It’s just been so great to see our community come together, and I know Anthony will have a big influence in that in Florida. But it’s so sad for it to be so new and for it to be just yesterday. I can’t imagine what some of those people are going through.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon, however, took more of a stance when asked about the need for gun control legislation.

“Of course, there’s got to be something done about that, there has to be,” Maddon said. “More specifically, I don’t know enough except that it doesn’t make any sense that an automatic rifle has to be in anybody’s hands. I don’t understand that. ... I don’t understand why those kinds of weapons are necessary in our culture in the hands of just anybody. I don’t understand that.”

While the shooting in Florida has become a topic of conversation across all walks of life in this country over the past 24 hours, it’s domination of the discussion at Cubs camp Thursday stemmed from the guy who wasn’t present. It allowed Rizzo’s teammates and manager to paint a picture of the kind of person Rizzo is and the kind of support he’s hoping to bring to his community back in Florida.

“He is the rock on the field, there’s no question about that,” Maddon said. “Of course we’ve got KB and some other really good players, but for the most part Rizzo is kind of like the rock that most everything builds off of.

“And then you take his work off of the field, the fact that he’s a cancer survivor. And his community work, his charity work is staggering to me. The fact that he won the award last year was well deserved. When he won the award, I texted him and said, ‘beyond anything you could’ve accomplished on the field, this is the most impressive thing, to me, that you’ve ever done.’

“He encompasses everything. The other day, he walked in the office smiling, loose, confident, shares his confidence with everybody else. He’s on the verge of becoming a very good leader, and he’s got all the intrinsic qualities to be that kind of a person. I think it was a matter of playing long enough, having enough life experience in order to be that guy. But he wants to be that guy, and he’s on his way.”

Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft


Looking back at just how lucky the Cubs were in the 2013 MLB Draft

Revisionist history is one of the best parts of being a sports fan.

Looking back at how drafts went for each league, realizing what teams made mistakes and what teams got lucky is a modern-day American national pasttime.

The Cubs certainly deserve a lot of credit for drafting and developing Kris Bryant, but they also got really, really lucky, too. 

Thursday morning represented more proof of that.

Mark Appel — the former can't-miss pitching prospect selected right before the Cubs grabbed Bryant in 2013 — announced he will be stepping away from baseball at age 26.

If Appel never returns to the professional game, he will become just the third player ever to be selected No. 1 overall and not even reach the majors.

The Houston Astros chose to pass on Bryant, opting for Appel out of Stanford instead. At first, the move looked fine. Appel found himself among all the top prospect lists in the game for three straight seasons, but the numbers never matched that reputation.

Appel wound up making 37 starts at Triple-A, but posted a 4.82 ERA and 1.59 WHIP in those games. In his five-year minor-league career, the 6-foot-5 right-hander sported a gawdy 5.06 ERA.

He was traded from Houston to the Philadelphia Phillies before the 2016 season and even a change of scenery didn't help matters.

Still, things worked out just fine for the Astros, who will head into 2018 as the defending champs — which is even more impressive now after getting no help from their No. 1 overall pick five years ago.

Had the Astros gone with Bryant first overall, it obviously would've changed the landscape of both franchises. It's hard to even envision the Cubs without Kris Bryant let alone trying to think how the Cubs would've ended the longest championship drought in American sports history.

If Bryant was the consensus first pick, would the Cubs — selecting second — have gone with Appel or Jon Gray? At the time, the three players were seen as clear frontrunners. Gray — selected third by the Rockies — has emerged as a budding ace in Colorado and could draw the Opening Day start in 2018.

The rest of the 2013 first round didn't fare much better than the Astros, so the Cubs were also lucky just to be choosing second overall:

After Gray, the next nine players selected in 2013 have combined for just -0.1 WAR. Later in the first round, only Tim Anderson (17th), Aaron Judge (32nd), Sean Manaea (34th) and Corey Knebel (39th) have provided any notable impact for their big-league club to date.

Theo Epstein's front office did so many things right to get to this point of sustained success, but they also needed quite a bit of luck along the way and they were never more fortunate than the 2013 MLB Draft.