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A look back: Chronicling Cubs Opening Day lineups during Theo Epstein's tenure

A look back: Chronicling Cubs Opening Day lineups during Theo Epstein's tenure

ARLINGTON, Tex. - When the Cubs bat in the first inning against the Rangers Thursday afternoon, it will mark Year 8 under Theo Epstein.

Obviously it's been an up-and-down journey in that stretch, with the "ups" coming the last few years, as the team has averaged 97 regular season victories, made three appearances in the National League Championship Series and, oh yeah, won a World Series and ended a 108-year championship drought.

In these past eight years, Epstein has certainly put his mark on this franchise and that is evident in the Opening Day lineup from year to year, shining a light on how much the roster has changed along the way.

Who knows what 2019 has in store for the Cubs, but this marks the fourth straight Opening Day with World Series or bust expectations for the franchise.

The Cubs will kick off their journey with the following lineup: 

1. Albert Almora Jr - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Javy Baez - SS
5. Wilson Contreras - C
6. David Bote - 2B
7. Ben Zobrist - DH
8. Jason Heyward - RF
9. Mark Zagunis - LF
P - Jon Lester

That's not all that surprising of a lineup, especially when it was announced last week Ian Happ was sent down to the minor leagues to work on some holes in his swing. All winter and spring, one of the questions surrounding this team was where Happ would play, where he would hit in the lineup and how Joe Maddon would dole out playing time for all these young players yet again.

All those questions are answered now, in that the bench is a little more set than it was before - Mark Zagunis and David Bote both profile well as backup/role players. 

Here's how the Cubs lined up on Opening Day each of the seven years prior in Epstein's tenure:

2018 @ MIA

1. Ian Happ - CF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Willson Contreras - C
5. Kyle Schwarber - LF
6. Addison Russell - SS
7. Jason Heyward - RF
8. Javy Baez - 2B
9. Jon Lester - P

It's amazing to look back at this lineup and see that the No. 8 hitter wound up finishing second in NL MVP voting, but rewind a year ago and Baez was still figuring things out. Heading into that Opening Day against the Marlins, Baez had just a .255/.300/.427 career slash line (.727 OPS) in 1,267 plate appearances and was coming off the first 20-homer season.

In fact, heading into 2018, it was Contreras - not Baez - that was the favorite pick for underrated Cubs MVP contender as the young backstop was coming off his first full season in the big leagues and hit 21 homers with 74 RBI in only 377 at-bats. He actually was a popular choice by Maddon to "protect" Rizzo and Bryant in the lineup, spending the latter part of 2017 at cleanup and beginning 2018 in the same spot before his late-season fade and Baez's ascension.

It's also interesting to see Russell hitting sixth on Opening Day. Fast forward a couple months and he was already starting to get phased out as a full-time player due to his ongoing hitting woes and throwing errors long before he was suspended for the domestic abuse investigation.

Last spring, Happ was tabbed as "the guy" for the leadoff spot and it looked like a brilliant choice when he sent the first pitch of the season into the right field bleachers and gave the Cubs the earliest lead they've had in franchise history. However, it was all downhill from there, as Happ wound up earning only 12 more starts in the leadoff spot the rest of the way.

On top of all that, it's funny to look back now and think Zobrist wasn't even in the Opening Day lineup during a season in which he built a strong case for Comeback Player of the Year and hit over .300 for the first time in his career. But he was slowed by a back injury in spring training a year ago and was coming off an injury-riddled 2017 season in which he hit .232 with a .693 OPS.

2017 @ STL

1. Kyle Schwarber - LF
2. Kris Bryant - 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Ben Zobrist - RF
5. Addison Russell - SS
6. Jason Heyward - CF
7. Willson Contreras - C
8. Jon Lester - P
9. Javy Baez - 2B

Ah, the Schwarber Leadoff Season. The Cubs tried to mold Happ in the leadoff role in 2018 and it didn't work out. The same happened in 2017 with Schwarber after a winter/spring of touting his fit in the role. 

Other lineup nuggets worth mentioning: Russell's spot in the lineup was even higher, which made sense at the time given he drove in 95 runs in 2016; Baez was the No. 9 hitter *below the pitcher* the year before he became an MVP contender; and Contreras was hitting below Heyward and in front of the pitcher a few months before he went on an insanely hot offensive stretch and finished the year hitting cleanup.

Also, I had forgotten about Zobrist in the cleanup spot, which is where he spent a lot of 2016 as protection for Bryant and Rizzo. The veteran switch-hitter didn't have a very good 2017 season, but a wrist injury played a major role in that (as did back-to-back seasons of playing into November on World Series runs).

2016 @ LAA

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
P - Jake Arrieta

Heyward's first Opening Day in a Cubs uniform and he was hitting second...with Bryant fifth and Rizzo fourth. It's hard to imagine any time where Bryant or Rizzo hit in this Cubs lineup without either guy hitting at least as high as No. 3 and a guaranteed trip to the plate in the first inning. Heyward spent a lot of time in the 2-hole early in the '16 season, which made sense given he had a .353 career OBP entering the season. Nobody knew he was in the midst of a year in which he'd post just a .306 OBP and .631 OPS.

This is also the last Opening Day Contreras did not start behind the plate, with Montero getting the nod a couple months before Contreras came up to make his big-league debut.

The Cubs lineup looked absolutely dominant in this game, scoring 9 runs off the Angels pitching staff on 11 hits (including a Montero homer) and 7 walks. On a more sour note, this game was only a few days before Schwarber and Fowler collided in Arizona and the former went down with a devastating knee injury and didn't return until the World Series. But hey, that story had a happy ending...

2015 vs. STL

1. Dexter Fowler - CF
2. Jorge Soler - RF
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Starlin Castro - SS
5. Chris Coghlan - LF
6. Mike Olt - 3B
7. David Ross - C
8. Jon Lester - P
9. Tommy La Stella - 2B

Look at this: back-to-back years with the same leadoff hitter. It's understandable Cubs fans are still dreaming about Fowler's presence atop the batting order with how much stability he brought to the position. But it's also worth pointing out Fowler had a .232 batting average and .308 on-base percentage in his first half-season in a Cubs uniform in 2015 before turning it on after the All-Star Break (.389 OBP). 

In general, this lineup really does not have the look of a team that was about to win 97 games and make a run to the NLCS. Obviously things looked quite a bit different once Bryant and Russell were called up in mid/late April, unseating Olt and La Stella from the starting lineups. And then Schwarber coming up midseason certainly helped, too.

Side note: Remember how often Coghlan hit third for this 2015 team? He made 36 starts in the spot and posted an .848 OPS in the role. (A big part of why he hit third was it made it easier for Maddon to give him a couple at-bats and then switch him out for matchups late in the game or a defensive upgrade during the time when Coghlan was playing second base.)

This was also Lester's first appearance - and Opening Day start - in a Cubs uniform after signing a megadeal the winter before.

2014 @ Pirates

1. Emilio Bonifacio - CF
2. Junior Lake - LF
3. Starlin Castro - SS
4. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
5. Mike Olt - 3B
6. Welington Castillo - C
7. Nate Schierholtz - RF
8. Darwin Barney - 2B
9. Jeff Samardzija - P

Just...wow. Really tough to believe the Cubs were ticketed for the postseason just a year after running out this Opening Day lineup. It's only been five years, but Lake, Olt, Schierholtz and Barney are all out of baseball and Bonifacio just signed with the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor-league deal after spending 2018 playing in independent ball.

Meanwhile, Castillo is on the South Side, Castro is playing for the Marlins and Samardzija is in the Giants organization. Only Rizzo remains from this 9-man group.

2013 @ Pirates

1. David DeJesus - CF
2. Starlin Castro - SS
3. Anthony Rizzo - 1B
4. Alfonso Soriano - LF
5. Nate Schierholtz - RF
6. Welington Castillo - C
7. Luis Valbuena - 3B
8. Brent Lillibridge - 2B
9. Jeff Samardzija - P

Raise your hand if you remember the Brent Lillibridge era. I completely forgot that guy made an Opening Day start for the Cubs at any point.

But hey - Luis Valbuena alert! He was one of a few fun names in this lineup, including Soriano's last year in a Cubs uniform and DeJesus' second - and final - season on the North Side a few years before he became our colleague at NBC Sports Chicago. 

Fun fact: Samardzija was dominant in this game, tossing 8 shutout innings with 9 strikeouts before Kyuji Fujikawa picked up the save. The Cubs scored 3 runs off Pittsburgh's A.J. Burnett - including Rizzo's two-run shot in the first inning - to pick up the victory.

2012 vs. Nationals

1. David DeJesus - RF
2. Darwin Barney - 2B
3. Starlin Castro - SS
4. Alfonso Soriano - LF
5. Ian Stewart - 3B
6. Jeff Baker - 1B
7. Marlon Byrd - CF
8. Geovany Soto - C
9. Ryan Dempster - P

I totally forgot both Byrd and Soto were in the first season of Theo's tenure on the Cubs team and I actually completely forgot Stewart was even a thing. 

Castro is the only player in this group that is not only still in the big leagues, but still in professional baseball in *any* capacity. Jeff Baker got the nod at first base while Anthony Rizzo Watch was picking up steam in the minor leagues. 

Looking at that lineup, it's not really a surprise this team lost 101 games, but hey, it did help lead to Kris Bryant.

The Cubs also gave Dempster an Opening Day start four months before they dealt him to Texas...for some dude named Kyle Hendricks who just signed an extension to remain in Chicago through at least the 2023 season.

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

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USA TODAY

Cubs add reliever Daniel Winkler in another low-risk, high-reward move

The Cubs have made another low-risk gamble on a bullpen arm.

Friday, the Cubs announced they've signed right-hander Daniel Winkler to a one-year deal worth $750K. The deal is a split contract, meaning Winkler will earn a different salary in the major leagues than if he gets sent to the minor leagues. He has one minor league option remaining. 

Winkler, an Effingham, Ill. native holds a career 3.68 ERA, 3.65 FIP, 1.176 WHIP and 10.3 K/9 in 117 games (100 1/3 innings). He spent 2015-19 with the Atlanta Braves, undergoing Tommy John surgery in June 2014 and another elbow surgery in April 2017. The Braves dealt him to the San Francisco Giants at the 2019 trade deadline for closer Mark Melancon.

Winkler posted a 4.98 ERA in 27 big league games last season and a 2.93 ERA in 30 minor league games. His best MLB season came with the Braves in 2018, as he made a career-high 69 appearances and posted a 3.43 ERA, striking out 69 batters in 60 1/3 innings.

The Cubs entered the offseason in search of bullpen upgrades following a rough 2019. That search includes finding pitchers who may not have long track records, but qualities demonstrating their ability to make an impact at the big-league level. In this case, Winkler possesses solid spin rates on his cutter, four-seamer and curveball, meaning he induces soft contact and swings and misses.

“We need to keep unearthing pitchers who we acquire for the right reasons, we work well with and have the physical and mental wherewithal to go out and miss a lot of bats,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference, “which is something we didn’t do a lot of — although we did increasingly in the second half with this pitching group — and find more guys who can go out and pitch in high-leverage spots."

The Cubs were successful in unearthing arms last season, acquiring Rowan Wick and Brad Wieck from the Padres in separate deals. They recently acquired Jharel Cotton from the Oakland A’s in a similar buy low move.

Not every pitcher will be as successful as the Wi(e)cks were last season, but the Cubs must continue making low-risk bullpen moves. At the best, they find a legitimate relief arms; at the worst, they move on from a low-cost investments.

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