Albert Almora Jr.

Would you rather: Jake Arrieta’s current deal or Yu Darvish’s?


Would you rather: Jake Arrieta’s current deal or Yu Darvish’s?

OK, this looks weird:

With Jake Arrieta inking a three-year deal worth $75 million, should the Cubs have tried for that same contract for the 2015 NL Cy Young Winner? Or are the Cubs still in a perfect spot with the Yu Darvish deal?

Plus, who will be the Cubs’ 2018 MVP and what will the exact Opening Day lineup look like?

Check out the entire podcast here:

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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?

Three questions answered — and three questions unanswered — through a couple weeks of Cubs spring training


Three questions answered — and three questions unanswered — through a couple weeks of Cubs spring training

March is almost here, and the Cubs are in the thick of spring training down in Mesa, with Cactus League games getting going over the weekend.

After watching workouts and hearing from players and manager Joe Maddon for two weeks, some of the offseason's biggest questions seem to have answers, while others still remain.

Here are three questions that have been answered and three that still need solving.


1. Yu Darvish gives the Cubs ultimate pitching depth

Heading into spring training, one of the biggest questions for this team was: What happens if a starting pitcher gets injured? Who would step into that spot in the rotation?

With the starting staff looking to be made up of Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Jose Quintana, Tyler Chatwood and Mike Montgomery, an injury meant someone the caliber of Eddie Butler shouldering the load in a pinch. But the Darvish signing changed all that.

Not only is Darvish one of the game’s best pitchers, an addition that gave the Cubs one of the best starting rotations in baseball, but he pushed Montgomery back to the bullpen, where Montgomery will serve in a variety of capacities. But the most important of those is starting-rotation insurance policy. Montgomery might want — and deserve — a shot at being an every-fifth-day starter. But squeezing him out of the staff means that in the event of an injury, the Cubs will be mighty confident in their replacement.

The Cubs went from having little depth past the fifth starter to having a terrific option at the de facto No. 6 spot in this five-man rotation, an added and very important benefit of bringing Darvish aboard.

2. Addison Russell and Javy Baez aren't switching positions any time soon

A minor controversy arose during the offseason when it was suggested that Addison Russell and Javy Baez should switch positions on the infield, with the defensive wizard Baez taking over full-time shortstop duties and Russell sliding over to second base. Yeah, that's not happening.

The Cubs view Russell as a top-notch defender at shortstop, as they should, and any of the struggles he had last year can't necessarily be chalked up to a lack of talent, as he was dealing with a pair of injured body parts and off-the-field issues that he admitted had an effect on his 2017 campaign.

No doubt about it, Baez dazzled at shortstop while filling in for the injured Russell last season. Between his arm, his range, his tags and his ability to make some truly jaw-dropping plays, it's no surprise that Baez has his sights on a Gold Glove in 2018. But if he wins it, it'll be at second base, where he was when the Cubs' infield took grounders last week in Mesa, with Russell lined up at shortstop. No surprise there.

Baez will likely still see a decent amount of time at shortstop when Joe Maddon plugs him in there to spell Russell on the latter's days off. But before any position switch is discussed, give Russell a season of full health to remind folks just how good a defender he is, too.

3. It looks like Victor Caratini will be the backup catcher

Willson Contreras could very well be baseball’s best all-around catcher. But the task of backing him up will be necessary considering the Cubs don’t want to burn out their young stud behind the plate.

There was plenty of speculation that the offseason addition of Chris Gimenez was intended to create another David Ross situation. Gimenez worked with Darvish and established a “personal catcher” type relationship when they played with the Texas Rangers.

But Joe Maddon threw some cold water on the idea that Gimenez would be the guy working with Darvish on a regular basis, and it might have signaled that Gimenez, a nine-year veteran who hit .220 in 74 games with the Minnesota Twins last season, won’t even make the Opening Day roster. Maddon pointed out that Contreras is the Cubs’ catcher and that it’ll be Contreras catching Darvish. The two already worked together during bullpen sessions early in spring training.

So with Gimenez’s main contribution — experience catching Darvish — seemingly unnecessary, wouldn’t it make sense that Victor Caratini will be backing up Contreras? The Cubs like Caratini, he’s been working with Contreras a lot, and he was decent enough at the plate in limited big league time last season, getting 15 hits and reaching base at a .333 clip in 66 plate appearances.


1. What’s up with Ben Zobrist and how much will he play this season?

Ben Zobrist showed up to camp talking about how great he felt and lamenting last year’s injury-filled season. Joe Maddon raved about his longtime player, saying how great of shape he was in. But then practice started, and Zobrist was nowhere to be found.

Maddon explained away Zobrist’s absence as a back issue and said that the utility man will be fine. But after last season’s battle with injuries and his increasing age made Zobrist’s playing time a question already, what does this latest ailment mean as the season approaches?

Give Zobrist credit for embracing a part-time role should his performance force him into one. But how much will his health limit that performance? It did last season, when he had perhaps the worst statistical season of his career with a .232/.318/.375 slash line while dealing with a particularly impactful wrist injury.

It’s plenty possible that Zobrist will be fine come Opening Day and that he’ll have a bounce-back season and a big role on another championship team. But for a guy coming off a rough season and entering one in which his playing time could be given away to the likes of Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Javy Baez, starting the spring with another injury is not ideal.

2. Is Brandon Morrow ready for the closer’s role?

The Cubs’ biggest addition to the bullpen this offseason admitted that the team told him it was leaving the door open to bring back All-Star closer Wade Davis. That didn’t happen, and now the closing job belongs to Brandon Morrow.

That isn’t a bad thing, necessarily, as Morrow was terrific in plenty of high-leverage situations with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season, posting a 2.06 regular-season ERA and pitching in every game of the World Series. But Morrow hasn’t had a regular closing job in a decade. Thrust into the ninth for a team with World Series expectations, how will things work out this time?

The Cubs have a safety net of sorts. Steve Cishek, another offseason addition, has plenty of closing experience. And Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. have been effective in late-inning situations for the past couple seasons — even if that wasn’t the case during last postseason.

On a team that seemingly has no holes, how Morrow will fare as the closer remains the biggest question. And while it’s not likely to be solved before the Cubs leave Mesa for Miami and the season opener, it will remain a talking point.

3. How will Joe Maddon solve his everyday outfield puzzle?

The Cubs’ skipper readily admitted he doesn’t yet know how he’ll divvy up playing time to his wealth of outfielders, three of which had subpar seasons in 2017 and have other players knocking on the door for extra time in the lineup.

Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward will likely get the majority of the at-bats in the corner outfield spots, but that doesn’t mean they’ll produce at the levels Cubs fans with high expectations want them to. Heyward hasn’t hit well at all since joining the team on the largest contract in franchise history before the 2016 season. Last year, the numbers were better than they were the year prior, but despite Gold Glove defense in right field he hasn’t lived up to any of the expectations at the plate. And Schwarber, who still clubbed 30 home runs last season, had enough trouble to warrant getting sent down to Triple-A midway through the year. Then there’s Ben Zobrist, coming off the worst statistical season of his career.

Meanwhile, young guys like Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. seem to be heading toward a platoon situation in center field. But if Schwarber, Heyward and Zobrist continue to struggle again, will the young guys demand more of a role? And what if those three guys all bounce back nicely? How will Maddon find at-bats for those young guys to prevent them from, as Zobrist put it, “rusting” on the bench?

Maddon’s managerial style means there probably is a satisfactory answer to this question awaiting. He tends to find the playing time for everyone, and with the way this team is built, there are well more than eight guys qualifying as “starting” position players. But it will be a daily head-scratcher for the skipper.