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.

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

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AP

Summer of Sammy: Sosa's 12th + 13th homers in 1998

It's the 20th anniversary of the Summer of Sammy, when Sosa and Mark McGwire went toe-to-toe in one of the most exciting seasons in American sports history chasing after Roger Maris' home run record. All year, we're going to go homer-by-homer on Sosa's 66 longballs, with highlights and info about each. Enjoy.

An off-day did nothing to slow down the 1998 National League MVP as Sosa collected his second straight 2-homer game May 27 of that season.

He went deep in the eighth and ninth innings of a Cubs' 10-5 loss to the Philadelphia Phillies at Wrigley Field, driving in 3 runs. 

The first homer - off Darrin Winston - was an absolute blast, traveling an estimated 460 feet. The second shot was tame in comparison with only 400 feet as a recorded distance.

In a matter of two games, Sosa raised his season OPS from .930 to .988 and his slugging percentage from .521 to .577 thanks to a pair of 2-homer contests.

Fun fact: Doug Glanville - former Cubs outfielder and current NBC Sports Chicago analyst - was the Phillies leadoff hitter that day in 1998, collecting three hits and scoring a pair of runs.

Yu Darvish back on the DL for Cubs with triceps tendinitis

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USA TODAY

Yu Darvish back on the DL for Cubs with triceps tendinitis

Yu Darvish now has more trips to the disabled list in a Cubs uniform than wins.

The Cubs place their 31-year-old right-handed pitcher on the DL Saturday evening with right triceps tendinitis. The move is retroactive to May 23, so he may only have to miss one turn through the rotation.

In a corresponding move, Randy Rosario was recalled from Triple-A Iowa to provide Joe Maddon with another arm in the bullpen. Tyler Chatwood will start Sunday in Darvish's place.

Thanks to two off-days on the schedule last week, the Cubs should be fine with their rotation for a little while. Jon Lester could go on regular rest Monday, but the Cubs would need to make a decision for Tuesday given Kyle Hendricks just threw Friday afternoon.

That decision could mean Mike Montgomery moving from the bullpen to the rotation for a spot start, or it could be the promotion of top prospect Adbert Alzolay from Triple-A Iowa.

Either way, this is more bad news for Darvish, who has had a rough go of it since he signed a six-year, $126 million deal with the Cubs in February.

Between issues with the weather, the concern of arm cramps in his debut in Miami, leg cramps in Atlanta, a trip to the disabled list for the flu, trouble making it out of the fifth inning and now triceps tendinitis, it's been a forgettable two months for Darvish.

He is 1-3 with a 4.95 ERA, 1.43 WHIP and 49 strikeouts in 40 innings with the Cubs.

Over the course of 139 career starts, Darvish is 57-45 with a 3.49 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and has averaged 11 strikeouts per nine innings.