We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.
Next up: Who will be the leadoff hitter?
It’s funny that the leadoff hitter mystery has been such a hot-button topic this winter, given that the Cubs got the 4th-best production of any team in baseball out of the leadoff spot last year. Of the 5 different guys that logged 50 or more PA’s in the leadoff spot, four of them were significantly better than league-average, as only Ian Happ posted a below-average wRC+ (88):
Anthony Rizzo (138 PAs): 161 wRC+
Daniel Murphy (131 PAs): 125 wRC+
Ben Zobrist (140 PAs): 121 wRC+
Albert Almora Jr (213 PAs): 117 wRC+
Frankly, I expect the breakdown to look a lot like this again. I’ll believe that Joe Maddon is on board with more consistent lineups when I see it, and not a minute earlier.
I’ll also go on record as saying in a perfect world, Anthony Rizzo is consistently the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. I get the argument that his power is wasted at the top of the order, but between Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant, the Cubs aren’t short on slugging. For his career, Rizzo has a hair under 200 PA’s (198) in the leadoff spot, and here are his numbers:
.317/.409/.587 with a .996 OPS and .411 wOBA, all good for a 159 wRC+
What’s more, of the 14 Cubs hitters that reached at least 100 PA’s in 2018, only Zobrist had a higher on-base percentage. HOWEVER, when you look at Zobrist’s career OBP out of the leadoff spot (.336), it’s not nearly as impressive as Rizzo’s (.409). Granted, Zobrist has like, literally 9X as many PAs out of the leadoff spot as Rizzo does, so his numbers are going to look lesser.
In reality, Almora, Zobrist, and Happ will split duties, based on who’s playing where and what arm the opposing pitcher throws a baseball with. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. Almora is one of the Cubs’ “faster” guys, and while you’d like to see a leadoff guy walk more than 5 percent of the time, his overall slash line from that spot speaks for itself. Zobrist is also a totally fine choice; he was Top-5 in lowest K percentage for leadoff hitters last season (Rizzo was 4th), 13th in BB percentage (Rizzo 19th) and 14th in OBP (Rizzo was SECOND). Zobrist’s power is declining, and he’s not a detriment on the basepaths. It’s a cozy fit.
Still, Rizzo should be leading off. You’re on a one-year deal, Joe. Let’s get weird.
Rizzo undoubtedly will spend time adding to his resume as the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time this season. Between his comfort level and love of hitting there, Maddon's willingness to buck convention and the Cubs' lack of an everyday fit at leadoff, it's bound to happen.
We'll also see the occassional Kris Bryant or Javy Baez or Willson Contreras up there, too, as Maddon often likes to put his best hitters in that spot for a day or two to try to get them going during a slump.
But Cam's right - expect a whole lot of Zobrist, Almora and Happ in the leadoff spot in 2019. Maddon has already acknowledged Zobrist will spend a lot of time up there against right-handed pitchers while Almora is a great fit vs. southpaws. But neither guy will be a consistent option atop the order - Zobrist will need plenty of rest at age 38 and Almora still doesn't walk much and has to develop more against righties.
Daniel Descalso will probably get some time in that spot, too, especially if he continues the on-base skills he flashed last year (career-high .353 OBP). Even Kyle Schwarber could find his way up there, because he still fits the bill of everything Maddon and the Cubs are looking for in the right matchup - an on-base machine who can also give the team an early lead with a dinger.
Happ is an interesting case. At this time last year, he was "The Guy" heralded for the leadoff spot, a year after the whole Schwarber experiment didn't work out. On paper, he checks every box - great patience and OBP skills (he posted a .353 OBP last year despite a .233 AVG), speed/good baserunning skills, some pop, switch-hitting ability and youth as somebody who can grow into the position. He very well could be the Cubs' leadoff hitter of the future, but obviously he has some hurdles to cross in the short-term. His strikeout rate was ridiculous last year and that will have to improve, even if he's still walking at an elite rate. Happ also has to find better success as a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers (.202 AVG, .608 OPS against southpaws last year) if he were ever to be the stable option atop the order.
The Cubs won't committ to one guy in the leadoff spot in 2019, which is the right move. Too much was made of the Cubs' lack of lineup stability last year and far too much has been made of the lack of a consistent leadoff hitter since Dexter Fowler left town. As Cam mentioned, the Cubs were plenty productive in the leadoff spot a year ago and that combination of guys actually led the NL in OBP out of the No. 1 spot (.366). At the end of the day, that's all that really matters in setting the table for Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Co.
But hey, if the Cubs truly wanted a stable option to plug-and-play in the leadoff spot, maybe the best option would be Kris Bryant...
The complete 19 for '19 series:
19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?