Cubs

Why Cubs might see Ben Zobrist as their No. 3 hitter

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Why Cubs might see Ben Zobrist as their No. 3 hitter

MESA, Ariz. – If Theo Epstein’s front office didn’t have an Ivy League pedigree and a research-and-development wing, the Twitter experts would laugh at the Cubs for calling Ben Zobrist a winning ballplayer.

But the Cubs are a blend of analytics and the eye test, striking the balance between numbers geeks and old-school scouts and putting Joe Maddon in the middle of it all. 

The manager will keep experimenting with the lineup throughout the season. But get used to seeing this Cactus League look with Zobrist as the No. 3 hitter in front of Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant.

Maddon pointed out how the Cubs used a Zobrist Light in the second half of last season. Beginning July 30, the Cubs won 12 straight games with Chris Coghlan batting third. So many factors went into that hot streak, but the Cubs did go 27-9 with Coghlan as their unconventional No. 3 hitter.   

“I would imagine that nobody wanted us to do that,” Maddon said Wednesday at Sloan Park. “But it played pretty well.”

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Zobrist is a Maddon favorite after their time together with the data-driven Tampa Bay Rays. The Cubs felt comfortable enough to give a supporting player a four-year, $56 million contract heading into his age-35 season. And Zobrist turned down bigger guarantees elsewhere because he wanted to play for Maddon again.

“I’m getting all this different information,” Maddon said. “The human component (is) in this whole thing. Because it’s easy to say: ‘Oh yeah, you want Bryant to get more at-bats, you want Rizzo (to get more at-bats).’ Of course, that’s an easy thought. But I like to feed these guys, too, and you like to protect them.

“And then you don’t always know that KB is going to feel good. Or what state of mind is Rizzo in right now? And where’s Zobrist at? And if Zobrist is hitting behind Rizzo, how does that effect the other team’s approach?

“All this stuff matters. I don’t care what anybody says – it matters. And if you can’t quantify it, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. It’s there. It’s in the dugout on both sides. When the lineup’s presented before the game, it’s there. It’s absolutely there.” 

Zobrist has been there before, putting up a .751 OPS in 148 postseason plate appearances and helping the Kansas City Royals win the World Series last year. The switch-hitter lengthened a Kansas City lineup that beat the New York Mets and the power pitching that shut down the Cubs in the National League Championship Series.

[MORE: Buzz building around Cubs as Forbes values franchise at $2.2 billion]

The Cubs have two leadoff-type guys in Dexter Fowler and Jason Heyward. Maddon says he’s leaning toward hitting the pitcher ninth and bumping up Addison Russell. An optimistic ZiPS projection has Zobrist batting .273 with 14 homers and 56 RBI this season.

“And then the theory of hitting your best hitter third,” Maddon said. “The one thing that I do believe in – and what I’m finding out a lot about – is the third-hole hitter comes up a lot with two outs and nobody on. So why would you want to put your best hitter there?

“And then the supposed best hitter’s going to complain about hitting fourth because he comes up a lot with nobody on base leading off an inning. What would you rather have?

“These are the kind of conversations where people just sit and talk about where to place somebody in a batting order and ‘Well, so-and-so wants to hit…’ He has no idea why he wants to hit there: ‘I’m the best hitter in the lineup, so I want to hit third.’ Big deal. That’s not going to benefit us.”

The Cubs want Zobrist in the middle of everything, as a clubhouse leader-by-example, a second baseman with the ability to play all over the field and, perhaps, their No. 3 hitter.

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

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USA TODAY

Cubs executive Jason McLeod reportedly linked to Giants' GM opening

Is this the offseason that Cubs executive Jason McLeod finally becomes an MLB general manager?

According to Bruce Levine, the Giants are reportedly interested in McLeod, the Cubs senior vice president of scouting and player development, for their vacant general manager position.

McLeod joined the Cubs' front office in 2011 alongside Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. Before the Cubs, he spent six years in the Red Sox front office and two in the Padres' (with Hoyer, who was San Diego's general manager from 2010-2011). 

Of course, the Giants' reported interest in McLeod doesn't necessarily mean that he will interview for the job. However, it's worth noting that McLeod interviewed for the Twins' general manager job in 2016; he also withdrew his name from consideration for the Padres' general manager job in 2014. 

In addition to the Giants, McLeod's name has been linked to the Mets' general manager vacancy. This is more speculation, but the point is that it seems to be only a matter of time before McLeod is hired as general manager elsewhere.

For what it's worth, though, McLeod is under contract through 2021 and has previously said that he is grateful to be with the Cubs. 

“I’m exceptionally grateful,” McLeod said. “All of us are. Look at where we are at this moment in time with this team," McLeod said in 2016. "I can’t imagine a better environment, a better culture to work at in baseball.

"We’ve been together a long time. We’re friends. We’re good. We embrace the fact that we are good. And we challenge ourselves to be even better.”

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

Cubs have new hitting coach in Anthony Iapoce

The Cubs are heading into a new season with a different hitting coach for the second straight winter, but the most recent choice is a familiar face.

Anthony Iapoce is set to join Joe Maddon's coaching staff this week after serving in the same capacity with the Texas Rangers for the last three seasons. The Cubs confirmed the move Monday afternoon shortly after the news broke out of the Rangers camp.

The Cubs fired Chili Davis last week after just one season as the team's hitting coach.

Entering the final week of the season, the Rangers fired manager Jeff Banister, leaving Iapoce and the rest of the Texas coaching staff in limbo.

As such, Iapoce is rejoining the Cubs, where he served as a special assistant to the General Manager from 2013-15 focusing on player development, particularly in the hitting department throughout the minor leagues.

Iapoce has familiarity with a bunch of the current star offensive players on the Cubs, from Willson Contreras to Kris Bryant. 

Both Bryant and Contreras endured tough 2018 seasons at the plate, which was a huge reason for the Cubs' underperforming lineup. Bryant's issue was more related to a left shoulder injured suffered in mid-May while Contreras' offensive woes remain a major question mark after the young catcher looked to be emerging as a legitimate superstar entering the campaign.

Getting Contreras back to the hitter that put up 21 homers and 74 RBI in only 117 games in 2017 will be one of the main goals for Iapoce, so the history between the two could be a key.

With the Rangers, Iapoce oversaw an offense that ranked 7th, 9th and 14th in MLB in runs scored over the last three seasons. The decline in offensive production is obviously not a great sign, but the Rangers as a team have fallen off greatly since notching the top seed in the AL playoffs in 2016 with 95 wins only to lose 95 games in 2018, resulting in the change at manager.

Iapoce has worked with an offense backed by Adrian Beltre, Elvis Andrus, Shin-Soo Choo, Nomar Mazara and Joey Gallo the last few seasons.

Under Iapoce's tutelage, former top prospect Jurickson Profar shed any notion of a "bust" label and emerged as a budding star at age 25, collecting 61 extra-base hits with a .793 OPS in 2018.

When the Cubs let Davis go last week, they provided no update on assistant hitting coach Andy Haines, who just finished his first season in that role and is expected to remain with the team for 2019. The same offseason Iapoce left for the Rangers, Haines took over as the Cubs' minor league hitting instructor.