Cubs

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Have the Cubs found their new leadoff hitter in Ben Zobrist?

Ben Zobrist doesn't yell and scream like John Lackey, but the veteran utility player still has a way of cutting right to the chase and not mincing words.

Zobrist — who's about to turn 36 — is refreshingly honest, even when admitting his new role as the Cubs' leadoff hitter comes with his challenges.

On the one hand, Zobrist seems like the perfect fit for the one-spot in the Cubs lineup: He's ultra patient, barely swings at pitches outside the strike zone and even has some pop to start a game off with a bang (as he did Sunday afternoon).

And while he acknowledged he needs to keep the same approach regardless of where he's hitting in the lineup, Zobrist still has a level of discomfort leading off.

"Leading off is not easy because of that first at-bat," he said. "You feel like, 'Well maybe I should be patient,' but then you don't want to let the ball right down the middle go by. There's just that question in your mind. You gotta weigh it based on the pitcher you're facing that day and really try to zone up on the first pitch.

"You don't get to see any of the previous pitches. Sometimes, it's harder to time the pitcher when you haven't seen anybody else batting in front of you in the lineup. That's the only difference. Besides that, I just consider it one of the other spots in the lineup."

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Monday marked Zobrist's 154th start in the leadoff spot in his career, which ranks fifth in frequency behind second (319 starts), third (267), fourth (229) and fifth (185).

Zobrist's numbers at leadoff are the lowest of any of those five lineup positions — .237 average, .328 on-base percentage and .708 OPS.

Hitting second through fifth in the order, Zobrist has career marks of .273 average, .368 on-base percentage and an .806 OPS.

Entering Monday night, Zobrist has made 24 starts at leadoff for the Cubs and carries a .220 average and .322 on-base percentage.

But he set the tone Sunday afternoon with a leadoff homer and came just a few feet shy of two more longballs later in the game.

Monday night, he put together a 12-pitch at-bat before striking out looking to lead off against Giants starter Ty Blach. In four plate appearances Monday, Zobrist saw 23 pitches, including a two-run homer in the eighth inning. His triple in the third inning marked 20 straight games that he's reached base safely.

Even though he admitted there are challenges in the leadoff spot, Zobrist isn't putting any added pressure on himself to set the table for the Cubs' big bats.

"It's just about being consistent," he said. "If I can be consistent and I can get on base, then I'll be doing my job in that spot. Although [Kyle] Schwarber hasn't hit as well as he wants to hit at the start of the year, he still got on base a lot in that spot. 

"We as an offense will continue to play better. It doesn't really matter who's [leading off] as long as we're getting on base."

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Maddon also liked the idea of Zobrist and his career .358 on-base percentage possibly forcing the opposition to shift less against Schwarber.

The thinking goes, if Zobrist reaches base ahead of Schwarber (hitting second), the defense will have to account for a baserunner and thus not be as able to load up the right side of the infield with defenders.

Zobrist is already a Swiss Army Knife for Maddon with his ability to play multiple positions. But the veteran has also been a key cog in the lineup, though mostly as protection to Anthony Rizzo the last two years, hitting cleanup. 

Maddon and the Cubs knew exactly what they were getting with Zobrist's versatility.

But now can he give the Cubs lineup a consistent presence atop the order in the vein of Dexter Fowler the last two years?

"Probably his best asset — two things — are that he knows the strike zone as well as he does and the fact that he's able to play a variety of different positions," Maddon said. "I say switch-hitting's also a part of that, but he's been this guy for a while. 

"He's got this recognition in the latter part of his career, but he's always been this type of player.

"All he wants to do is win. That's who he is."

Why Andy Green is such an important part of the Cubs coaching calculus

Why Andy Green is such an important part of the Cubs coaching calculus

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — On the day he was introduced as the next Cubs manager, David Ross made it a point to explain how important it is that his bench coach is "one step ahead" of him as he gets his feet under him.

Theo Epstein echoed that sentiment, saying a bench coach with managerial experience was vital as the Cubs help Ross along as not only a first-year manager, but also a first year coach.

Enter Andy Green.

The 42-year-old Green spent the last four seasons as the San Diego Padres manager, but was fired with one week left in the 2019 season and two years left on his current deal. The Padres wanted a different voice moving into the future after Green compiled a 274-366 record and lost at least 85 games each season, finishing no higher than fourth place in the National League West.

But the Cubs don't want Green to be the manager and they love what he brings to the table as a veteran coach and Ross' right-hand man. 

"Talking to the Padre guys that I know well, he has excellent in-game strategy and always thought ahead very well in-game," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said Tuesday. "Very bright, very well prepared. And that's not to mention he's a really good coach. We felt like that was a really good pairing for David. He hasn't managed, so having a guy next to him that, by all accounts, was really good in-game and controls information well, I think that's a really nice pairing."

At his introductory presser, Ross acknowledged his weaknesses as a first-time manager and admitted he will need some time to get the "feel" back of being in the dugout and engaged in each pitch after serving as either a broadcaster or front office executive for the last three years.

As a player, Ross often tried to think and strategize along with his manager, but that's not the same as actually having to make those calls and worry about pitching changes, pinch-hitting, umpire challenges and any other in-game duties a manger is tasked with. It can all add up quickly and managers often have to make the crucial decisions at the snap of a finger.

Ross and Green have not worked together, but the Cubs are hoping they can form a fast friendship and believe Green's ability to prepare is also an asset along with his experience. 

"He's gonna be great at [the bench coach job]," Padres GM A.J. Preller said. "I think it's gonna be a really good thing for somebody that's in that [manager's] chair for the first time having somebody that's gonna be knowledgeable, prepared, detail-oriented and somebody that understands what it's like to sit in that seat. I think all those things are gonna help serve [Green] really well."

Preller and Green reportedly didn't always see eye-to-eye in the big picture view of where the Padres were going, but there's no denying how the San Diego GM feels about his former manager's intellect and the Cubs won't need him to call the shots — only to assist Ross in doing so.

"Andy is probably one of the most intelligent baseball people I've been around," Preller said. "To me, probably as good a person as I've been around as far as Xs and Os and knowing the game. Andy always seemed to be two or three steps ahead. He's very well thought out, very well prepared. It's gonna be a huge strength for him and I think it will be nice for a first-year manager to have somebody like Andy sitting next to him."

A bench coach's exact duties vary from team to team and manager to manager, but with the Cubs, they will lean on Green initially to help Ross along with the experience aspect, making sure the game is not too quick for the first-year manager. During games, Green will be standing right next to Ross, weighing decisions and options along with pitching coach Tommy Hottovy.

But like other bench coaches, Green will also be tasked with helping to serve as a bridge between Ross and the Cubs players. In a lot of ways, Ross is the face of the franchise, as he will partake in somewhere around 500 media sessions throughout the course of the season, including before and after each game. Between that, addressing the team as a group, individual meetings with players and all the strategy and discussions with the R & D department and the front office, Ross will need to lean on Green to be his right-hand man off the field, as well.

It helps that Green just finished managing in the National League, where he knows the opponents and the game is quite different than the American League, which has the benefit of the designated hitter.

"He's a guy that understands all different aspects [of being a coach]," Preller said. "He understands some of the newer information, some of the newer technology. He's gonna understand things that have worked in the past in terms of preparing for games from an advanced information standpoint and then he'll draw upon his experiences being in the National League, knowing the league really well.

"I think he'll be able to give all those things to David Ross and to the Cubs players — somebody who comes in with the mindset of just trying to help the team out and help the team grow. All those things are going to be positives."

We'll see how quickly Ross and Green can jell together, but it's clear the Cubs believe Green can help expediate the process of preparation and in-game strategy for Ross, both now and in-season. 

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Ned Colletti interview

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: Ned Colletti interview

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, David Kaplan talks with former Cubs front office executive and Dodgers GM Ned Colletti on how to fix a major league roster, when to deal a player who is heading into free agency, and more

01:30 How he moved from MLB to being a scout in the NHL

04:30 How to fix a major league roster

06:40 On building the roster when other teams know your weaknesses

09:30 When to deal a player who is facing free agency

11:30 Balancing trying to win now vs. building a team for a sustained run

14:30 On how a GM can't depend only on signing a big free agent

18:00 On his time with the Cubs in the 1980s

19:45 On how a GM deals with Scott Boras

22:00 On how a GM deals with talk radio and the media

26:00 On how he almost got CC Sabathia on the Dodgers for 2008 playoff run

28:00 On how not trading for Ryan Dempster helped bring Kyle Hendricks to the Cubs

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

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