As he settled into his seat to meet the media on Tuesday, Cubs manager David Ross asked the cluster in front of him who was “leading off” with the first question of the session.
In response, a reporter turned the question around to Ross, asking the first-year manager who his leadoff hitter will be this season. That quip drew laughter from the room, but it’s one of the Cubs’ most pressing questions this spring.
“I’m still gonna look at it. We’ve got some options, just playing things over my head,” Ross said. “Wait to see how some of the at-bats go in spring for sure, see how some of these guys look. I’ve got a couple guys in mind — I’m not ready to publicly announce.”
The leadoff spot was a glaring weakness for the Cubs in 2019. With Ben Zobrist missing a chunk of the season, 11 players led off at least once, hitting a combined .212 with a .294 on-base percentage. Both totals ranked last in MLB (by four and 14 points).
The Cubs have used 17 leadoff hitters since Dexter Fowler departed in free agency post-2016. Last season showed the downside to that method: When pressed into action, Jason Heyward (33 games, .147 average, .252 OBP) and Kyle Schwarber (56 games, .229 average and .304 OBP) struggled in that spot.
The rotating cast method can work — in 2018, Cubs leadoff men ranked fourth in MLB in average (.302) and second in OBP (.366). However, Ross said this week he believes in a structured lineup and not moving guys around too much. Finding a consistent leadoff hitter is part of that equation, and the first-year skipper has a couple names in mind.
“There’s a handful of guys you guys can say or can speculate, but I think [Anthony Rizzo] is definitely a viable option if I want to go with a professional at-bat to lead it off,” Ross said Tuesday. “There’s a group of guys and I haven’t talked to any players, had any meetings, got to speak to anybody yet. Still want to do that when we get [going] here.”
The stats backup Rizzo's Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time self-proclamation. In 58 games (244 plate appearances) leading off, the slugger holds a .335/.426/.602 slash line with 14 home runs and 167 wRC+. He said last month he prefers to hit third or fourth but is "all-in" for what Ross wants to do.
Rizzo leading off is reasonable when Schwarber, Javier Báez, Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are hitting well — the four can makeup for any lost slugging with him at leadoff. Rizzo being atop the lineup also creates a formidable 1-5.
Another option could be Ian Happ, who hit .311/.348/.672 last September with six home runs. In the season’s final eight games, he posted a .480/.519/1.200 line with five homers and 12 RBIs. He's been less successful in his career leading off: 30 games (113 plate appearances), .232/.319/.475, 40 strikeouts, 12 walks.
If Happ continues to improve his strikeout rate (2019: 25 percent) and continues walking consistently (career: 12.0 percent), he's a viable leadoff option. Nico Hoerner and his contact-oriented approach is a wild-card option but he needs to boost his walk rate (3.7 percent last season). Hoerner may start the year in Triple-A anyhow, and the Cubs likely won't toss him at the top of the lineup with so few big-league at-bats on his résumé.
In an ideal world, the Cubs would’ve added a prototypical leadoff man this winter. Between the shortage of such players league-wide and their tight-budget, a move never came to fruition. They're hoping to find an internal solution this spring.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.