Cubs could handle it, but Joe Maddon doubts Jonathan Papelbon will walk into Wrigley clubhouse

Cubs could handle it, but Joe Maddon doubts Jonathan Papelbon will walk into Wrigley clubhouse

Cubs manager Joe Maddon says Jonathan Papelbon’s name hasn’t come up during his conversations with Theo Epstein’s front office.

“The guys have not discussed him with me,” Maddon said before Tuesday’s day-night doubleheader against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. “I’ve not heard a whole lot of scuttlebutt about the clubhouse yet, either.

“I’m not saying it can’t happen – don’t get me wrong – but for right now, there is nothing happening.”

With reports signaling that Papelbon will make his decision within the next 24 hours, all signs now point to the Cubs not adding a combustible element to their clubhouse. But that would mostly reflect Papelbon being a diminished pitcher who just got released by the Washington Nationals – a first-place team the Cubs could ultimately face in the playoffs – and not the WWE villain caught choking Bryce Harper in the dugout last September.

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The Cubs have Boston Red Sox wings in their front office (Epstein, Jed Hoyer, Jason McLeod) and clubhouse (Jon Lester, John Lackey, David Ross), which made the best team in baseball an attractive destination from Papelbon’s perspective. It wouldn’t be a surprise if Papelbon winds up back at Fenway Park.

“You should be able to absorb a personality that (from the outside) people might view in a different way,” Maddon said. “I’ve always had faith that if you do the right thing in that room, the next person that comes in (gets) the message – ‘This is how we do it here’ – without me having to say it. Or if they’re going against the grain: ‘We don’t do that here’ is also a good way of putting it.

“If you look throughout really good teams in different sports, they’ve been able to take people that come in that maybe weren’t viewed as well outside. (But then) – all of a sudden – they become model citizens. And that’s not because of the manager or the coach. That’s because of the room. That’s because of that group.

“I really have a lot of faith in our players that regardless of who we put in that room, these guys would pretty much have the new person understand: ‘This is how we do things here.’ Or maybe even more importantly: ‘That’s not how we do things here.’ So I’ve never been opposed to that – the perception from outside looking in – because I do have a lot of faith in our guys.”

[RELATED: Why Papelbon's crazy act makes sense for Cubs]

Papelbon no longer inspires the same faith in the ninth inning – or fear factor for opponents – at the age of 35 and near the end of a career that has seen him make six All-Star teams, save 368 games and earn a World Series ring with the 2007 Red Sox.

For now at least, the Cubs believe Pedro Strop will return from knee surgery next month and Hector Rondon won’t go on the disabled list with a triceps injury. The hope is Joe Smith (8.10 ERA) is better than his five-game sample size since getting traded from the Los Angeles Angels. And that Carl Edwards Jr. (27 strikeouts in 19-plus innings) and Justin Grimm (zero runs allowed in his last 14 outings) can keep evolving into trusted setup guys.

“I like our group right now,” Maddon said. “We’ve gone back and forth with different guys this year, and as long as these guys are well, I have a lot of faith in the group in there right now.”

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

What Cubs lineup could look like in 2020 if Kris Bryant leads off

Kris Bryant told reporters Wednesday he's offered to leadoff for the Cubs this season to manager David Ross. And while nothing is set in stone, the 2016 NL MVP is one of the Cubs’ best options for the role.

Bryant isn’t a prototypical leadoff guy but it’s not like we’re discussing a cleanup man moving to the No. 1 spot in the lineup. Yes, he has power, but he’s also an on-base machine (career .385 OBP) who accepts his walks (career 11.9 percent walk rate).

Considering Bryant’s plate discipline, opponents will either have to pitch to him or run the risk of walking him ahead of Anthony Rizzo, Javier Báez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. Bryant leading off will give those guys more RBI opportunities. He’s also one of the Cubs’ best baserunners, and his ability to take an extra base benefits those hitting behind him.

It’s important to note Bryant wouldn’t change his approach in the top spot — his power won't just disappear. He has a career .502 OBP with the bases empty and could put the Cubs ahead right away with a long ball or put them in business with an extra-base hit.

Bryant will be himself no matter where he hits: an elite on-base guy who almost always puts together a quality at-bat. He’s as good a leadoff candidate as any on the Cubs (no disrespect meant to Anthony Rizzo, aka the “Greatest Leadoff Hitter Of All-Time”).

If Bryant leads off, here's what standard lineups could look like, both against righties and lefties:

Versus RHP

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward (RF)
7. (R) David Bote
8. Pitcher
9. (S) Ian Happ (CF)

Former Cubs manager Joe Maddon liked to alternate lefties and righties in his lineup. With MLB’s new three-batter minimum rule for relievers, I stuck to that mentality to create a late-inning advantage for the Cubs.

Schwarber-Báez-Rizzo looks lethal and is somewhat interchangeable. Rizzo recently said he prefers hitting third or fourth but will hit where Ross wants him. Ross suggested Wednesday Rizzo will hit behind Bryant; it looks unorthodox but Ross can always adjust it. 

Rizzo has fared well hitting second and hitting him there keeps him and Bryant back-to-back.

Rizzo hitting second (237 plate appearances): .300/.401/.515, 153 wRC+.

I like Báez getting RBI chances behind Bryzzo, the Cubs’ two best on-base guys. And, he mashes in the three hole:

Báez career hitting third (118 plate appearances): .366/.398/.571, 161 wRC+ 

Similarly, Schwarber has been more successful hitting cleanup than any other spot:

Schwarber career hitting fourth (68 plate appearances): .393/.441/.787, 211 wRC+

Those aren't the biggest sample sizes, but the numbers are eye-popping. Contreras and Heyward hitting fifth and sixth brings us back to a more traditional Cubs lineup. The second base competition is wide-open, but I'll give Bote a slight edge after he hit .274 with a .425 OBP post-All-Star break last season.

Bote will also play some third, which is when we'll see Daniel Descalso and Jason Kipnis (if he makes the roster) at second.

RELATED: Cubs roster projection 1.0: Bullpen, second base competitions are wide open

From there, I like a pitcher hitting eighth and Happ hitting ninth as a second leadoff guy. He has a good eye for the strike zone and his ability to get on base will give the top of the order more RBI chances.

Now, for the lineup against lefty starting pitchers:

1. (R) Kris Bryant (3B)
2. (L) Anthony Rizzo (1B)
3. (R) Javier Báez (SS)
4. (L) Kyle Schwarber (LF)
5. (R) Willson Contreras (C)
6. (L) Jason Heyward OR (R) Steven Souza Jr. (RF)
7. (R) Albert Almora Jr. (CF)
8. Pitcher
9. (R) David Bote (2B)

Ross believes in a structured lineup, so this looks pretty similar to the previous order. Heyward isn’t going to sit against every lefty starter, but when he does Souza’s power bat will fit in nicely in the sixth spot.

In this scenario, Hoerner is in Triple-A and Bote is the starting second baseman against lefties. Where Bote hits is contingent on Almora. I’d put Bote ninth when Almora is in the lineup because the former is more of an on-base threat. Almora’s contact-oriented approach could help move ahead any baserunners ahead of him. The same can be said about Bote, but I like the idea of him getting on base for the top of the order.

Happ, a switch-hitter, will also start against righties and I can see him hitting sixth, seventh or ninth. A lot of this hinges on how he, Almora and Bote are performing at the plate. Each will get their at-bats, but the Cubs need one to emerge as a consistent contributor.

Do these groupings look unfamiliar? Sure, but Bryant leading off will put us in new waters. Again, nothing is set in stone, and the Cubs have a ton of lineup combinations for this season. Seeing Bryant atop the order sure looks like an enticing possibility, however.

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

Kris Bryant to get a shot as Cubs leadoff hitter

The leadoff spot has been in flux for the Cubs since Dexter Fowler left after the 2016 season. A new chapter in that role could soon be coming.

According to multiple reports, Kris Bryant talked about leading off for the Cubs in a meeting with new manager David Ross and it sounds like he will get a chance to do just that.

The Cubs have been creative with the leadoff spot without the lack of a traditional leadoff hitter on the roster. Anthony Rizzo even has 57 games in the leadoff spot in his career.

Bryant has had seven starts at the top of the order. He hit .321/.387/.464 in those games.

The Cubs' own Twitter account has made it semi-official by poking fun at Bryant as a leadoff hitter.

What this would do to the rest of the Cubs' lineup is going to be interesting. Bryant primarily batted second or third last year. Putting him at leadoff could separate him from Rizzo and Javy Baez in the middle of the lineup. Ross could also continue to change things up and put Baez or Rizzo second to keep the team's best three hitters back-to-back-to-back in the order.

Ross hasn't even managed a spring training game yet, but this could be his first big change. With the first spring training game coming up on Saturday, we should get a clue as to how Ross plans to send the team out. Suddenly the batting order is something to keep an eye on.

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