Ben Zobrist

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

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USA TODAY

Who should lead off for Cubs in 2018?

The Cubs' offseason has been hyperfocused on pitching, pitching and more pitching.

But what about the offense? Specifically: Who's going to hit leadoff for the 2018 Cubs?

That question seems to be one of the hot topics surrounding the team as they strive to make Even Year Magic a Chicago thing and win another World Series in 2018.

Before we get into who SHOULD lead off, I'll tell you who shouldn't: Albert Almora Jr., who is a popular choice among fans to fill in for the ghost of Dexter Fowler atop the order.

That's not a knock on the young outfielder, who seems primed for a breakout in 2018 when he should be playing on a regular basis and seeing a lot more time against right-handed pitching. 

This will only be Almora's second full season in the big leagues and given he was in a platoon for most of last year, he still only has 411 career plate appearances in the majors. 

So he's not much more experienced than Kyle Schwarber was when he was penciled into the leadoff spot for the Cubs to kick off 2017 and we all know how that experiment went. Leading off is a tough position to put players in, especially those that are still growing in their big-league skin.

Plus, Almora simply doesn't see enough pitches. He swings at the first pitch often (more than 11 percent of the time) and saw only 3.45 pitches per plate appearance in 2017. That mark was good for 29th on the Cubs behind eight pitchers (Dylan Floro, Kyle Hendricks, John Lackey, Jon Lester, Eddie Butler, Jose Quintana, Jake Arrieta and Hector Rondon), though the pitchers obviously have a small sample size of plate appearances.

Still, that's a shockingly small number for a position player. Almora would've been tied for 143rd out of 145 position players in baseball in pitches per plate appearance if he had enough at-bats to qualify.

But as for who SHOULD lead off, my choice is Ian Happ, though I would like to see Kris Bryant get some run up there and maybe even another Anthony Rizzo stint as "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time."

Here are my Top 5 suggestions if Joe Maddon were writing out the lineup today:

1. Ian Happ
2. Kris Bryant
3. Ben Zobrist
4. Jason Heyward
5. Anthony Rizzo

Here's more on the reasoning behind that:

Hot Stove - Cubs Leadoff Hitters/2021 White Sox Predictions

Who should be the Opening Day leadoff man for the Cubs? What will the 2021 White Sox lineup and rotation look like? We make our predictions and want to hear yours NOW on Hot Stove Live!

Posted by NBC Sports Chicago on Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Javy Baez, the Cubs' versatile King of Swag

Even his teammates are having a hard time wrapping their minds around Javier Baez, the farmer.

Anthony Rizzo asked the flashy infielder before one of the panels this weekend at Cubs Convention, “What is it you do exactly? Feed chickens?”

The exchange garnered a good laugh from the crowd, but let’s be honest: only Baez could make feeding chickens look as cool as feeding a double play ball at Wrigley. Having asked at least 10 different Cubs players this weekend which teammate has the most swag, it was always Baez. And there was never any hesitation. 

Like the bling that hangs around his MLB logo-tatted neck, Baez dazzles on the field as well. His tags are a thing of beauty. You can just imagine young ballplayers around Chicago imitating the swipe, much like a Michael Jordan fadeaway jumper. Whether manning second or short, the 25 year-old has become a must-see defensive player.

Last season Baez took over at shortstop as Addison Russell dealt with a strained right foot/plantar fasciitis problem. In 30 games Baez thrived at his natural position, so much so he left some wondering if the Cubs would consider flipping Russell back to second base.

Baez has the more traditional, powerful shortstop arm, but Theo Epstein will tell you when you look at Russell’s defensive rankings compared to other shortstops, he’s a special player in his own right as well.

One thing’s for sure: the Cubs are fortunate to have that kind of depth up the middle. Joe Maddon made it clear last September that without the play of Baez, it’s doubtful the team would have been in position to clinch the division.

“We have two legitimate shortstops," Maddon said. "It’s very unusual to have that.”

Sure, a great problem to have. But how does it play out for the Cubs when all is said and done?

Does Baez take over at short with Russell moving to second, or is it Maddon having a tough conversation with Ben Zobrist and plugging No. 9 in as his everyday second baseman? There's Ian Happ, too. Is he the Cubs' second baseman of the future with Russell/Baez being the trade chip that lands a frontline starter?

All viable options, but just for fun we put Baez on the spot at Cubs Convention and asked him: Are you a shortstop playing second, or a second baseman playing short?”

He flashed a big grin and said a second baseman playing short. In other words, he gets it.

His bling doesn’t blind him from being a team player. "El Mago," the magician, knows his time is coming. A process that will begin in a few weeks when the Cubs report to Mesa.

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like if Shohei Ohtani decides to come to Chicago?

What would the Cubs look like with Shohei Ohtani in the mix?

All the attention this week has been on which team will land the Japanese superstar, a stellar pitcher and hitter who has met or will meet with seven teams this week. The Cubs, who reportedly met with Ohtani on Tuesday, are competing with six fellow finalists: the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels, San Francisco Giants, San Diego Padres, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

The North Siders could be facing an uphill battle, with reports Sunday indicating Ohtani would prefer a smaller-market team on the West Coast. But what if the Cubs do land Ohtani? What comes next?

Well, most notably, he'd slide into a starting rotation that could certainly use him after losing two arms to free agency after the end of the 2017 season. With Jake Arrieta and John Lackey presumably gone, the Cubs' starting staff has just three locked-in names at the moment in Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks and Jose Quintana. Adding Ohtani, however, would erase a lot of the uncertainty behind those three returning pitchers. Based on the makeup of their roster, it figures the Cubs would covet Ohtani's arm more than his bat, and he's a guy that can throw a 100-mph fastball. That's always welcome in the big leagues. While, of course, it's still unknown how his game will translate from Japan to Major League Baseball, if the Cubs were to sign Ohtani, it would go a long way toward taking care of their offseason to-do list when it comes to starting pitching.

And really that would be enough, but the 23-year-old Ohtani is unique in his success as both a pitcher and a hitter. He supposedly really wants to bat and play the field on days when he's not pitching. While you might think an American League team would make more sense, allowing him to DH four out of five days and not risk injury while playing the field, four of the seven finalists are National League clubs, including the Cubs.

Ohtani's addition as a four-days-out-of-five outfielder would create a much more difficult puzzle than his addition as a pitcher. Fortunately for the Cubs, that's the kind of puzzle Joe Maddon likes. After watching Maddon tinker with versatile position players for the past three seasons, it makes sense that he'd love to have someone like Ohtani, who he could even move between the pitcher's mound and the outfield throughout the same game. Remember, this is the skipper who put Travis Wood in left field.

For Theo Epstein's front office, though, things might be a little trickier. The Cubs' outfield is crowded enough as it is, with Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist all candidates for those three outfield spots — and obviously Happ and Zobrist can log time on the infield, too. There's been plenty of speculation that the Cubs might try to trade one of those younger guys, such as Schwarber or Happ, for starting pitching help this offseason. But an Ohtani decision to come to the Cubs would undoubtedly impact that, as well. Maddon likes to rotate those guys around, too, and Ohtani's addition would still allow him to do just that, with Ohtani leaving the outfield to pitch every fifth day.

It's unknown how much playing time Epstein, Maddon and the Cubs would want to give Ohtani in the field, who is about to embark on his first season in the majors and who as a pitcher would carry an increased worry about injury. Are they looking at him as an everyday outfielder, an infrequent outfielder or just the team's No. 1 pinch hitter when he's not pitching? That would all remain to be seen. But if Ohtani chooses the Cubs, it's unlikely he would do so without some assurance that he could hit and play the field on a regular basis, even if not every day.

There wouldn't be too much pressure on Ohtani to be the team's top hitter, what with Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras hitting in the same lineup. But his addition would be an important one to a lineup that went quiet during this year's postseason series against the Washington Nationals and aforementioned Dodgers. As for where he would bat in that lineup, who knows, with Maddon constantly moving his pieces around. Could Ohtani even fill the Cubs' need at the top of the order?

One thing's certain, though, when it comes to Ohtani's bat: On the days he pitches, the Cubs would have the best top-to-bottom, 1-through-9 hitting lineup in the NL. Cubs pitchers have been fine at the plate in recent seasons, but adding an actual hitter to that group would be something else entirely. Ohtani would be far from the automatic out most pitchers are viewed as.

The dual-threat Ohtani is being billed as the future of baseball. And while the baseball world waits for him to pick a team, it's fun to think about how he could alter the future of the Cubs.