Cubs

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Is Albert Almora Jr. the answer for Cubs at leadoff?

Can Albert Almora Jr. fill the Dexter Fowler-sized hole atop the Cubs lineup?

Almora and Co. are set for a quick two-game series in Cleveland beginning Tuesday night, the first time the Cubs have stepped foot on Progressive Field after that epic Game 7 that ended a 108-year championship drought.

Fowler led off that game with a home run off Corey Kluber and shortly after, signed with the St. Louis Cardianls, leaving the Cubs scratching their heads for a consistent leadoff hitter since.

Kyle Schwarber was touted as "the guy" to begin 2017, but he struggled mightily, prompting an eventual trip back down to the minors that summer. Ian Happ was supposed to be "the guy" for 2018, but he's gone through similar issues and is currently reduced to a part-time role as he works on the holes in his swing with Cubs hitting coaches Chili Davis and Andy Haines.

In between, we've seen "The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" Anthony Rizzo fill the role for a few games, along with the likes of Jon Jay and Ben Zobrist, among others.

Right now, at least, the answer certainly appears to be the guy who scored the game-winning run in that Game 7.

Almora has drawn the last four starts at leadoff, during which the Cubs won three of those games against two hopeful playoff contenders (St. Louis, Colorado). He's collected a hit in each game — 8 in total — and scored 6 runs.

Oh yeah, and Almora made so many highlight-reel catches in center field over the weekend that he might've just secured the Gold Glove before May's even hit:

Almora is hitting .378 with a .911 OPS in eight starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter this season, scoring eight runs and even drawing a few walks (3 in 40 plate appearances).

Of course, it is a small sample size still — he entered Sunday's game hitting .419 as a leadoff hitter before going 1-for-6 in the finale in Colorado, meaning one bad game would drastically change those numbers.

But Almora is also doing this against right-handed pitching recently — with three of these last four starts coming against righties (all Cubs wins) — so the past week is yet another example that the Cubs' 24-year-old centerfielder is flashing serious signs of development.

As good as he's been recently, Almora still probably isn't the answer at leadoff long-term for the Cubs.

He's seeing just 3.32 pitches per plate appearance, ranking 346th out of 355 MLB hitters in 2018. That's a far cry from Fowler's 2016 season, when he ranked 4th in baseball in pitches seen per plate appearance, coming in just behind Mike Trout and just ahead of Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

When any guy the Cubs throw out as the leadoff hitter is on a hot streak, the offense looks to be firing on all cylinders. But what made Fowler so great atop the order was his ability to take walks regardless of what kind of stretch he was on as a hitter.

Fowler drew a walk in 14.3 percent of his plate appearances in 2016 and boasts a 12.7 career rate. Almora is drawing a free pass 7.5 percent of his times up in 2018, and that's a jump from his 5.7 percent career rate.

"Dexter is an outstanding leadoff hitter," Joe Maddon said when Fowler and the Cardinals visited Wrigley Field last week. "He goes through his moments, too, when he gets hot or cold. But he knew how to do it because even when he wasn't hitting, Dexter was really good at accepting his walks.

"On top of that, he's got this effervescent personality that your team can feedoff of and he was really good about not wearing it on his sleeve when he wasn't going well. On-base percentage was normally floating around that 35 percent mark or better, even when he wasn't hitting well.

"It was nice to have him here to do that. Beyond that, he's such a wonderful teammate and in the clubhouse, he's outstanding. We have not had that stability since he's gone, but we'll figure it out."

The Cubs have scored the most regular-season runs in the National League since that last time Fowler was atop the lineup, but in that span, Cubs leadoff hitters are hitting just .247 with a .326 on-base percentage and .741 OPS.

By comparison, Fowler hit .276 with a .393 on-base percentage and .840 OPS in 2016.

Imagine the potential for this current lineup and for "Bryzzo" in RBI opportunities if the leadoff hitter was getting on base anywhere near the rate of 2016 Fowler.

Almora has just a .335 career on-base percentage and 28 walks in 493 plate appearances, including a .301 career OBP against right-handed pitchers. And that's with this recent hot stretch and a great couple months to end 2017 as the Cubs deployed him in the best situations for him to succeed.

If Almora plays every day, he will probably get overexposed at some point.

So if not Almora, then who? Happ isn't the answer at the moment given his struggles and extreme strikeout rate (43.1 percent).

Ben Zobrist would be perfect and Maddon admitted he would've led off over Almora in the finale against the Cardinals last Thursday if the veteran utility man was not dealing with a back ailment that later landed him on the DL.

Tommy La Stella is another good fit, but where would he play every day? Kyle Schwarber looks like Kyle Schwarber The Hitter again, but after the experiment as a leadoff hitter last season bombed, would anybody really want to risk a setback by inserting him in the spot again?

Jason Heyward left Colorado with a .352 on-base percentage and even though it may come at a complete shock to most Cubs fans, he could be an option to lead off if he shows consistency over a larger sample size. Javy Baez is the only Cubs hitter hotter than Almora, but even though he put together a stretch worthy of a weekly NL honor, he hasn't walked in almost two weeks and has just two unintentional free passes in the first month of the season.

So for now, it's Almora's show and deservedly so. 

But chances are, he's not the guy that's going to bring long-term stability to the Cubs' leadoff position on an everyday basis.

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

For now, it appears Javy Baez has avoided serious injury on hit-by-pitch

ST. LOUIS — Cubs nation can breathe a sigh of relief for now.

The team announced Javy Baez has a left elbow contusion after taking a 90 mph fastball off it in the third inning of Sunday night's game. He was initially scheduled for an X-ray to make sure there is nothing more sinister at play, but that was deemed not necessary throughout the course of the game and it looks as if the Cubs' dynamic young infielder has avoided serious injury.

"I'm fine. Just really sore," Baez said. "It got me really good right on the elbow. I thought the pain was gonna go away right away but kinda numbed my whole arm. We've been icing it. It feels pretty sore, but right now, I'm good."

Baez said he didn't move his arm for almost an hour after getting hit, but wasn't experiencing any numbness or lack of feeling in his left hand or fingers after the game. He didn't rule out playing in Monday night's homestand opener at  Wrigley Field.

Still, this is not what the Cubs wanted to see.

The Cubs entered play Sunday night having gone 24-12 since getting swept out of St. Louis in the first weekend of May. They were feeling good about themselves, starting to get their mojo back and playing more like the team everybody expected.

And then Baez took a fastball off the left elbow.

After a couple minute delay, Baez was led off the field and Addison Russell came in off the bench to replace him at first base.

The 25-year-old is in the midst of a breakout season for the Cubs, sitting 5th in the National League with 46 RBI and on pace for a near 30-30 season (33 homers, 29 stolen bases). 

He had slowed a bit (.175 average, .502 OPS in June) but still gives the Cubs so much energy and versatility on a daily basis with his ability to move around the infield and lineup.