Joe Maddon teases potential Cubs Opening Day lineup behind Jon Lester

Joe Maddon teases potential Cubs Opening Day lineup behind Jon Lester

MESA, Ariz. — With Javy Baez currently playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic, Joe Maddon gave a sneak peek at one version of his Opening Day lineup behind Jon Lester.

As Lester got his second Cactus League appearance against the Colorado Rockies at Sloan Park Saturday, Maddon built a lineup around the ace southpaw that looks like it will play April 2 in St. Louis:

1. Kyle Schwarber - LF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Ben Zobrist - 2B
5. Addison Russell - SS
6. Jason Heyward - RF
7. Wilson Contreras - C
8. Tommy La Stella - DH
9. Jon Jay - CF

Of course, the Cubs won't have the luxury of the designated hitter in St. Louis, but insert Lester in La Stella's spot and everything else is in line with what Maddon has hinted the typical lineup might look like (though Maddon isn't a fan of typical lineups) if everybody stays healthy.

Just look at how much has changed from Maddon's lineup on Opening Day 2016 against the Angels in Los Angeles:

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Jason Heyward - RF
3. Ben Zobrist - 2B
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Kris Bryant - 3B
6. Kyle Schwarber - LF
7. Jorge Soler - DH
8. Miguel Montero - C
9. Addison Russell - SS

You could plug Albert Almora Jr. in the Cubs' 2017 edition in the nine-spot and depending on the pitching matchup, Baez may also get the call somewhere on the diamond Opening Day.

"It just depends on the pitcher," Maddon said. "Javy will probably bat to the bottom part of the batting order anyway. We just plug him in somehow, whether that would be for Zobrist or Schwarber. It could be for anybody that hits left-handed and you want another righty in there.

"I don't know. That's just gonna be a day-by-day thing. Javy won't hit at the top. He'll hit toward the bottom and he'll play against righties and lefties; I'm not saying just lefties. 

"But if you're gonna try to morph him in there a little bit, you're probably gonna do it against left-handed pitching and give somebody a day's rest."

Maddon said he is "leaning" toward keeping the pitcher in the No. 8 spot, but is still waiting to hear the thoughts from the Cubs' geek department.

That would make sense in games where Schwarber is the leadoff hitter, preluding Schwarber in the lineup with a position player instead of a pitcher.

[RELATED - Why Maddon sees Kyle Schwarber as the leadoff guy in Cubs lineup]

Maddon also has no intentions of sitting Schwarber against left-handed pitching, even though the young slugger has posted a .143 average and .481 OPS against southpaws in his big-league career.

In the minors, Schwarber's stat lines against lefties looked like this:

2014 in A-ball: .316/.407/.570 (.976 OPS)
2015 in Double-A and Triple-A: .234/.315/.445 (.760 OPS)

"I don't have a discomfort level," Maddon said. "He's gonna get his playing time vs. lefties also. We'll watch and see how it plays out.

"I guess in the past, he's never really had problems hitting lefties. I don't anticipate that now with enough opportunity. This guy played three games last year. The year before, we saw him briefly.

"Like anything else with this guy, he'll go out there and work to be really good at that and I have full faith that he will. Now, if it doesn't play right, we'll do something differently, but he'll get the opportunity to hit the lefty."

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

On and off the field, Nico Hoerner proved he should be a big part of 2020 Cubs

Even before his surprise mid-September call-up, things were shaping up for Nico Hoerner to be a big part of the 2020 Cubs.

Now it looks like a certainty after the way he played in his 20-game cup of coffee in the final few weeks of 2019.

The organization's top prospect excelled at every level after the Cubs made him a first-round pick (24th overall) in June 2018. A broken wrist cost him two months this summer, but when he returned to Double-A Tennessee, the Cubs had him playing second base and center field in addition to shortstop, his natural position. That only boosted his value, as the Cubs clearly have holes at both center and second that they need to address this winter.

When he was pressed into duty after injuries to Javy Baez and Addison Russell, Hoerner proved the moment was certainly not too big for him. He hit .282 with a .741 OPS and 17 RBI in 20 games while playing solid defense at shortstop and displaying his great contact skills. 

While it's not unheard of for 22-year-olds to come up and immediately make an impact in the big leagues, Hoerner's case was particularly impressive given he played just 89 minor-league games and had not taken an at-bat above the Double-A level.

And Hoerner didn't just turn in solid production on the field — he was actually credited with helping provide a spark to the rest of the club, even though the season ultimately didn't end up the way the Cubs wanted. 

"He's been a little bit of a spark plug for us," Jon Lester said at the beginning of the Cubs' final homestand. "Any time you add energy like that, especially the naiveness of it — just not knowing what to expect and just going and playing baseball. Sometimes we all need to get back to that. Sometimes we all need to get back to just being baseball players and not worry about what else is going on surrounding us."

His former manager, Joe Maddon, called Hoerner a "differencemaker" down the stretch and felt confident he could stick at shortstop long-term.

It was also Hoerner's attitude and temperament that really drew rave reviews. Everybody — from Maddon to Theo Epstein to fellow teammates — were blown away by his sense of calm and confidence even while playing in pressure-packed big-league games. Those are the intangibles the Cubs have loved about Hoerner since they drafted him and don't expect that to change anytime soon.

"This is the type of human being he is," Epstein said. "He processes things really well he has strong character, he's in it for the right reasons, he's got a great family. He's really an invested member of the organization, a teammate and a winner."

This is the way he's always been, as his mom, Keila Diehl, explained to Kelly Crull in an interview on NBC Sports Chicago's broadcast on Sept. 14.

"He's just not full of himself," Diehl said. "He could be, and he's just not. ... He's just like this nice, ordinary guy — no attitude. Always brings a lot of energy and positivity to any team he's on."

That's exactly the guy we saw in Chicago in the final three weeks of the season. 

So as he recovers from his first full season of professional ball, Hoerner is in a position to forge a huge role for himself in Chicago next year. At the moment, it's reasonable to expect that to come at second base, but his ability to play shortstop might very well make Russell expendable this winter, especially with MLB Trade Rumors projecting the latter would be due $5.1 million in arbitration in 2020. 

The Cubs made it a point to get Hoerner some playing time at both second base and center field in the final two games of the 2019 season and he could at the very least offer a depth option in the outfield. 

His versatility, intangibles, and competitive drive present an intriguing package and his offensive skillset can help bring some diversity to the Cubs lineup. Hoerner is not really a power hitter at this point in his career but his hand-eye coordination and contact ability provide a refreshing style to this offense.

Simply put, Hoerner is just a good *baseball* player and profiles as the type of guy that can help any winning team in some capacity. 

The only question now is: Will the Cubs stash him in the minors for the early part of the season or let him continue to develop at Wrigley Field?

“We don’t ever draw it up that a player’s gonna skip Triple-A," Epstein said at his end-of-season presser. "It’s not determined yet where Nico’s gonna start next season, but given his mental makeup, given his skillset, who he is as a person, we felt that was something under the extraordinary circumstances that he could handle. I think it’s important that player development continues at the major-league level. 

"These days, it’s becoming a younger player’s game. If you look around baseball, the best teams have young players dominating. Yes, it’s not linear. There’s gonna be regression at the major-league level. But our players have had some real regression that’s taken them a while to dig out from. That’s something that we have to solve — finding ways to finish development off as best you can in the minor leagues, but understanding too that you need to create an environment at the major-league level with players who are expected to perform night after night are still developing, still working on their weaknesses, still making adjustments to the league." 

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Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

Report: Giants interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for manager opening

The Giants' search for a successor to now-retired manager Bruce Bochy has led them to the North Side.

According to NBC Sports Bay Area's Alex Pavlovic, the Giants are interested in Cubs first base coach Will Venable for their own managerial opening. San Francisco's interest is intriguing, as Venable went to high school just outside San Francisco in nearby San Rafael. His father — Max Venable — played for the Giants from 1979-83. 

Venable also interviewed for the Cubs' manager job earlier this month, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that his interest is in the "organization in general." He is one of several internal candidates for the Cubs' job, along with bench coach Mark Loretta and front office assistant David Ross.

The Cubs also interviewed Joe Girardi and are set to meet with Astros bench coach Joe Espada and former Phillies manager Gabe Kapler.

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