Cubs

Cubs: What will Joe Maddon’s lineup look like in 2016?

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Cubs: What will Joe Maddon’s lineup look like in 2016?

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.

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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.”

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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.

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

As he decides what's next, it's clear Ben Zobrist has something left in the tank

When Ben Zobrist rejoined the Cubs active roster on Sept. 1, it was fair to wonder how much he could provide offensively. After all, he spent the previous four months on the restricted list while tending to a family matter, last playing a big-league game on May 6.

Zobrist did no baseball activities from May to mid-July, only working out to stay in shape. Although he eventually ramped things up, he played in just 12 minor league rehab games in August before returning to the Cubs, a small number compared to the length of his absence.

Even Zobrist admitted upon his big-league return that his timing at the plate wasn’t where he wanted it to be. And yet, what he did in September was nothing short of impressive. In 21 games, he posted a .284/.377/.388 slash line, performing at a level many couldn’t have expected, considering the circumstances.

Zobrist's impact on the Cubs' lineup goes beyond what you see in the box score, however. Not only is he a switch hitter with some pop, but he has a keen eye for the strike zone and frequently puts together professional at-bats.

On a Cubs team that tends to expand the zone, Zobrist’s presence mattered. In his second game back, for example, he went 3-for-3 with two walks, helping the Cubs beat the Brewers 10-5. After the game, Brewers starter Chase Anderson pointed out how different the Cubs' lineup looks with Zobrist in it.

"They play the matchups really well and Zobrist makes that team so much better," Anderson said on Sept. 5. "Just bringing his presence to the top of the lineup, it changes their dynamic a little bit."

Where Zobrist stands entering 2020, though, is currently unclear.

Zobrist is set to hit free agency after the World Series and will turn 39 next May. Therefore, it’s possible that he’s played his last game in the big leagues, as he has little, if anything, left to prove at this stage in his career.

Ahead of the Cubs’ season finale on Sept. 29, Zobrist told reporters in St. Louis that he hasn’t thought about how much time he’ll take before deciding what’s next for him. His family situation will obviously play a big role in his decision, but if September showed anything, it's that he still has something left in the tank.

“I’m 38 but I got that feeling all over again,” Zobrist said following the Cubs’ season finale, a 9-0 loss to the Cardinals in which he pitched a scoreless inning. “Just really fun, you know? It’s a fun game. Sometimes you don’t come out on the winning end, but you still gotta have fun with it and enjoy it. I enjoyed it today."

The Cubs roster is expected to undergo changes this offseason, with center field, second base and the leadoff spot being just a few areas the team will look to address. The latter two spots became revolving doors during Zobrist’s absence, as the Cubs struggled to replace what he brought offensively.

Zobrist is past the point in his career of being an everyday player. However, he still could be a useful asset for the Cubs in a supporting role, bringing his veteran approach to the lineup when he plays while still offering an experienced voice in the clubhouse.

“I take a lot of joy in that role, just being a supporting guy and being a part of winning clubs and part of winning atmospheres and cultures,” Zobrist said on Sept. 29. “The Chicago Cubs have been that since I’ve been around. This year we didn’t make the playoffs — we still have a winning record — (but) the kind of relationships that are built here and the culture that’s been built here is definitely a winning one.”

After the Cubs announced that they wouldn’t retain Joe Maddon for 2020, Zobrist acknowledged that more changes were likely coming in the offseason. Only time will tell what that means for the veteran utilityman — should he continue playing.

Whether he retires or joins a different team for 2020, though, Zobrist will look back on his four seasons with the Cubs fondly.

“(They’re) just the most passionate fans I’ve ever met,” he said of Cubs fans. “They’re very loyal, very passionate and it’s been such a pleasure to be a part of that team that beat the curse back in ’16, so I feel that still, when I see Cubs fans, there’s a lot of them that hug me and thank me for being a part of that.

“I’ll always look back at [my] time here — I don’t know what’s going to happen in the offseason — but look back at these four years and [be] very grateful to be able to be part of a group like this and be able to do what we did while I was here.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

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USA Today

Cubs Talk Podcast: An ode to Joe Maddon and looking to the next era

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Tony Andracki, Kelly Crull, Scott Changnon and Jeff Nelson give us their memories of Joe Maddon's time with the Cubs and discuss David Ross and Joe Espada's candidacy to be the next manager.

01:30 Kelly's memories of Joe from the perspective of a reporter

06:00 Going back to Hazleton with Joe

07:45 Joe's legacy as manager of the Cubs

16:00 How Joe impacted Javy Baez' career

18:00 David Ross and Joe Espada may be the leaders to replace Joe Maddon.

Listen here or via the embedded player below:

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