Ben Zobrist

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.

Colorado native David Bote gets chance to make MLB debut in home state after Cubs place Ben Zobrist on DL

zobrist-421.jpg
USA TODAY

Colorado native David Bote gets chance to make MLB debut in home state after Cubs place Ben Zobrist on DL

Ahead of Saturday's game in Colorado, the Cubs placed Ben Zobrist on the 10-day disabled list with back tightness and called up David Bote, who is set to make his MLB debut in his native Colorado.

Zobrist missed the last three games and weather postponements mean he hasn't played since April 14. The 36-year-old is hitting .326 with a homer and seven RBIs. He was placed on the DL retroactive to April 18.

Zobrist's injury created an opening for a cool story for Bote. The 25-year-old was drafted by the Cubs in 2012 and hasn't exactly lit up the minors, but worked his way onto the 40-man roster after the 2017 season ended.

Bote is from Colorado and is in the lineup for Saturday's game at the Rockies. That means he will get to make his big league debut in his home state.

Bote was hitting .234 in Triple-A Iowa with a .511 slugging percentage.

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

cubs_searching_for_rhythm_of_season_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

As Cubs search for rhythm, hold the declarations on this season for a while

Jed Hoyer is right: You can't make any claims about these Cubs one way or the other.

It's too early and the weather/schedule has been far too wacky for any strong statements about who, exactly, the 2018 Cubs are. 

"I don't think you can really evaluate much so far," Hoyer said. "There's no rhythm to the season yet. The game's been played in terrible condition for the most part.

"Positively or negatively, I don't think you can draw big conclusions based on what's happened. ... There's a lot of games to be played. We'll forget this time quickly and remember what it's like to be in [Wrigley] when it's not freezing. It's been a little choppy and hard to evaluate, for sure."

You can shout "SMALL SAMPLE SIZE" from the Wrigleyville rooftops all you'd like, but that's not even why it's impossible to draw conclusions about the identity of this team.

The 8-8 Cubs have already had five postponements due to weather to start the 2018 season, including four on the recent homestand (and a makeup game on Thursday, which was originally scheduled as a travel day). The last time this franchise had five games in April called on account of weather was back in 1967 and there are still another 10 days left in the month for the weather to possibly mess with. 

This will surely go down as one of the oddest starts to a season in Cubs history, with a 17-inning game played on the second day of the year, followed by a 10-inning game the next day. The Cubs were supposed to start the campaign with six straight games, but the last contest in Cincinnati was postponed, so they got an impromptu two-day break, which was good at the time for Anthony Rizzo to rest his ailing back and the bullpen to catch their breath.

After a four-game series in Milwaukee's domed stadium in which the Cubs finally looked to be showing some rhythm, the weather reared its ugly head again.

The 11-day homestand featured four postponed games, maybe the worst weather game in Wrigley Field history (Saturday) and yet another impromptu two-day break. This week alone, the Cubs played two games in a five-day span.

All of that has led to an inconsistent product.

One day, the Cubs look like an offensive juggernaut, going 5-for-9 with runners in scoring position, chasing an opposing starter before the fifth inning and scoring in bunches, as they showed Thursday in the 8-5 win over the Cardinals.

But in half the games this year, they can't seem to buy a hit against pitchers most Cubs fans haven't even heard of.

One day, the starting rotation flashes its elite potential, only to get battered around the next night.

"We haven't pitched very well," said Jon Lester, who allowed only an unearned run across six innings Thursday. "I'm not gonna speak for hitters; I don't like to cross that line by any means. But I feel like we've had some really good offensive games and our pitching staff as a whole hasn't stepped up.

"I think things will get better if we can get some games in. You got pitchers that are going on 6, 7, 8 days rest all the time. It's hard to get in that rhythm, especially when it's cold out. It's hard to find the ball; it's hard to find that release point."

Lester isn't one for making excuses and the Cubs aren't doing that. Every team in baseball has to go through these head-scratching weather issues, but it's impossible to point to the team's starting pitching inconsistency without including the schedule caveat. 

Baseball players — and starting pitchers, in specific — are creatures of habit and yet everybody is trying to navigate this new terrain.

Kyle Hendricks is still throwing a bunch on the side during all these rain/snow-outs, but most relievers are saving their bullets. Position players are still working out and getting their time in the cages, but that doesn't help everything.

The team that set records for their defensive prowess in 2016 has been inconsistent in the field this year, though their manager has an idea why.

"When you don't play consistently, the feel, the nuance, that escapes you," Joe Maddon said. 

The same issues that plagued the Cubs during their World Series "hangover" last year still seem to be around — not coming up with the timely hit, poor situational hitting overall, too many walks from the pitching staff.

But there are also reasons for optimism.

Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell are showing development offensively and the lineup has missed its anchor (Anthony Rizzo) for almost half the season (seven games). Carl Edwards Jr. is limiting his walks and the Cubs bullpen has been the team's saving grace for the first three weeks.

The starting rotation is still iffy, but with resumes like Lester's, Kyle Hendricks', Jose Quintana's and Yu Darvish's, that figures to even out over a larger sample size.

The Cubs haven't fallen too far back in the standings (3 games behind the NL Central-leading Pittsburgh Pirates) and more importantly than anything, they've been able to stay healthy, apart from minor back issues for Rizzo and Ben Zobrist.

The weather still doesn't look great in Colorado, Cleveland or back in Chicago next week, but eventually things will warm up and the sun will come out on a regular basis.

And eventually enough games will be played — and not postponed — where statements about who the 2018 Cubs are can be identified conclusively.

It's just not that time...yet.