HAZLETON, Pa. – Cubs fans and the Chicago media are obsessed with The Lineup. But the repetitive questions that seemed to wear down Lou Piniella don’t bother Joe Maddon.
The short answer is there is no answer – at least in the sense of a static 1-through-9 batting order. It will depend on the matchups, the scouting reports, the hot hands and whatever inspiration strikes Maddon while riding his bike or listening to a Pandora station in his office.
It all starts with Jason Heyward.
Beyond whatever Maddon’s beloved “Geek Department” discovers while sifting through the numbers, this still isn’t fantasy baseball. The Cubs manager needs to find out what makes the new $184 million man tick.
“Lineup-wise, of course, having a conversation with Jason is going to be really important,” said Maddon, who’s bouncing around this old Pennsylvania coal-mining town this week, trying to grow his Hazleton Integration Project through another series of charity events.
“His comfort level regarding hitting leadoff would be an example. I’m not saying he’s going to hit leadoff. I want to know his comfort level before I make up my mind.”
Heyward has a career .353 on-base percentage and three seasons with at least 20 stolen bases on his resume. He’s hit .280 and gotten on base more than 35 percent of the time in 570 plate appearances as a leadoff guy.
Ben Zobrist – who played nine seasons on Maddon’s unconventional Tampa Bay Rays teams – is another fill-in-the-blanks guy who can make contact, hit elite pitching and create even more defensive versatility.
Heyward and Zobrist (.355 career on-base percentage) can set the table for Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber – and set a patient, focused example for a lineup that had boom-or-bust potential.
“Zobrist can hit 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 or 9,” Maddon said. “He doesn't care. He’s just out there to win. Primarily, when you look at it, you can start writing names down (and) I do like to go right-left, right-left as often as possible to mitigate the other team’s bullpen.
“However, if I don’t see a real negative left-hander on the other side – Rizzo’s hit lefties really well, so I don’t even look at him as left-handed – you can stack a little bit sometimes based on the other team’s bullpen. Sometimes you really don’t want to stack, because that could really take one of your guys out of the game, based on your ability to match up late.”
The Cubs led the majors with 1,518 strikeouts last season – no other team even reached 1,400 – and featured nine players who finished with double-digit home runs. A Cubs official admitted the New York Mets did a great job of identifying weaknesses and breaking down their young hitters while sweeping the National League Championship Series.
“Rizz has his preferences,” Maddon said. “But you saw what he did last year – he moved up and down great. KB, same thing. Schwarber, again: ‘Hit me wherever, I don’t care.’ The catchers, they’ll probably be more towards the bottom of the batting order. But my biggest concern is balancing out 1, 2, 3, 4 and trying to keep a right-left, right-left kind of component. Zobrist being a switch-hitter helps.”
It’s unclear if Heyward’s left-handed swing and 6-foot-5, 245-pound frame can replicate his 27-homer season with the Atlanta Braves in 2012, or how much more room he still has to grow as a player at the age of 26, after more than 3,400 plate appearances in the big leagues.
Heyward is getting paid like a middle-of-the-order bat, but realistically the Cubs would feel like it’s a good return on their investment if he keeps being a productive hitter, Gold Glove outfielder and strong clubhouse presence.
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The point is Theo Epstein's front office is giving an outside-the-box thinker so many options, especially if the Cubs keep Jorge Soler and Javier Baez instead of trading for a young pitcher, and Chris Coghlan and Tommy La Stella become valuable role players again.
“I’ve written a couple things down,” Maddon said, “primarily right-left, right-left, right-left kind of stuff. But conversationally, I need to talk to Jason first. It’s really important. To some guys, it matters a lot. And I really want to know how people feel.”
No doubt, Cubs fans and the national media feel like the possibilities for this team are endless.