The Cubs' leadoff woes are even worse than you imagined

The Cubs' leadoff woes are even worse than you imagined

Anybody who's watched a Cubs game this season could tell you the leadoff spot has been a major hole on this roster.

In the midst of a brutally honest interview Thursday morning, that production — or lack thereof — was a big topic of conversation with Theo Epstein.

Epstein hopped on 670 The Score with Mike Mulligan and David Haugh on 670 The Score and at the end of a 19-minute session where he kept it real and spoke passionately about the state of the team, he addressed the leadoff woes:

"I feel really, honestly embarrassed by the on-base numbers we've had in the leadoff spot," he said. "That's not the way at all to build an offense. To the point where you roll it back again, you might just want to consider taking any one of your best hitters and just throwing them up in the leadoff spot. The No. 1 rule of lineup construction is get your best hitters up top, bunch them together, get them up top in the lineup and let them do some damage. 

"With the on-base production we've been getting out of the leadoff spot this year, it's been certainly a detriment to our lineup. No, I don't begrudge people making a big deal out of it. It certainly is."

Entering play Thursday, here's what the Cubs have gotten out of their leadoff spot this season and where they rank out of 30 MLB teams:

.202 AVG (30th)
.283 OBP (30th)
.368 SLG (28th)
.651 OPS (29th)
122 hits (30th)

And the thing is, it's not like the Cubs are narrowly in last place. They have far and away the worst production out of the leadoff spot, so far back that they will likely end the season last in average and on-base percentage.

Coincidentally, the division-leading St Louis Cardinals have the next-worst mark in production out of the leadoff spot, but they're way ahead of the Cubs in both categories — 18 points in batting average and 21 points in OBP.

The leadoff spot has been a huge point of contention surrounding this team ever since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

The Cubs did not have one stable person atop the order in 2018, but that didn't stop them from churning out the best leadoff production in the NL. Only the 108-win Boston Red Sox had a higher OBP from their leadoff batters than the Cubs (.366) and Maddon's squad also led the NL with a .302 average in the spot. 

That's right — the 2018 Cubs had a batting average a full 100 points better than the 2019 Cubs with two-and-a-half weeks to play.

Ben Zobrist coming back was supposed to help alleviate some of the concern, but after a hot start atop the Cubs order, he has since slumped (2-for-16, 0 BB over his last four games leading off). 

Anthony Rizzo got the call to retain his role as Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time Thursday and immediately responded with a walk and run in the first inning of the Cubs 4-1 win over the Padres. He now has a .462 on-base percentage hitting first.

It was only Rizzo's third start leading off, as he's mostly found himself in the middle of the Cubs order, where they've needed to rely on him to drive in runs and be one of their big boppers.

But with the season on the line over these next two-plus weeks, maybe Maddon will have no choice but to keep Rizzo atop the order on days Zobrist does not play.

Even despite Zobrist's recent struggles, he's hitting .293 with a .370 OBP in 20 starts at leadoff. Thursday was Rizzo's third start atop the order and Javy Baez has also made a couple starts and posted a .375 OBP at leadoff.

But apart from those three guys, the rest of the Cubs leadoff options have combined to hit .185 with a .263 OBP. 

That's 56 starts from Kyle Schwarber (.304 OBP), 32 from Jason Heyward (.252), 15 from Albert Almora Jr. (.221), 11 from Daniel Descalso (.314) and then 3 starts from Robel Garcia, 2 from Tony Kemp and 1 each from Ian Happ and Willson Contreras. 

"Right now, I think the struggles you're seeing in the leadoff spot are also just because we're struggling to get on base as a team," Epstein said on 670. "If we had a lot of different options on guys that were having good years who had the ability to get on base, you just throw one of them up in the leadoff spot without having to take away from your guys who are driving in runs — your two, three, four hitters. 

"I think the struggles we have at leadoff are reflective of the fact that we're struggling to get on base this year as a whole. It's awesome to have that prototypical leadoff guy — it is an important part of building an effective offense — but if you have a deep roster of guys who are all getting on base at a high clip, it's easy. You just mix-and-match. You can play matchups up there and where you lack in the one tone-setter at the top of the lineup, I think you make up for it by having good on-base guys get on base. 

"That's the single most important job of the leadoff hitter — just get on base. And we don't have that. It's been honestly a worst-case scenario this year out of the leadoff spot in that everyone that we throw up there goes through their period of not getting on base at all. So the numbers that we've had, it's shocking to me."

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

Cole Hamels is out to prove the naysayers wrong, whether that's with the Cubs or elsewhere

How you evaluate Cole Hamels’ 2019 performance depends on which half of the season you look at.

Hamels was the Cubs’ most reliable starting pitcher through June, putting his name firmly in the conversation to make the All-Star Game. Through his first 17 starts, he held a 2.98 ERA, with 97 strikeouts and 35 walks in 99 2/3 innings.

That 17th start – June 28 against the Reds – represented a turning point for the left-hander, however. After throwing one warmup pitch ahead of the second inning, Hamels took a beeline for the Cubs’ dugout, exiting the game with a left oblique strain.

Hamels quickly detecting the strain was key, as he avoided a more significant injury and only missed one month as a result. However, he never got back to his pre-injury level after returning. In 10 starts, he posted a 5.79 ERA, walking 21 batters in 42 innings as opponents slashed .315/.397/.506 against him.

Which of the two pitchers does Hamels more closely resemble at this point? That’s what teams will have to evaluate this offseason, when the soon-to-be 36-year-old lefty hits free agency for the first time in his career.

On top of his oblique strain, Hamels also missed a start in September with left shoulder fatigue. By the time he returned, the Cubs were eliminated from postseason contention, but he wanted one last chance to show what he’s capable of before free agency.

“I don’t want to put that in the back of teams’ heads of how I finished,” Hamels said the day before his final start of the season. “I think I’m capable of what I was able to do in the first half - that’s who I am - and I can still get those good results for hopefully [the Cubs], if they consider that.

“But also, for other teams to know that I’m not the type of player that’s on the regression. This is what we’re gonna expect. It’s more so what I was able to do in the first half - the type of player that I am and the results that I can get out on the field.”

He certainly backed those words up, shutting down the Cardinals – who hadn’t clinched the NL Central yet – in the second-to-last game of the regular season. Hamels pitched four innings, allowing no runs on just two hits.

Hamels looked stellar in that game, but it doesn’t change the fact that returning from an extended injury absence isn’t easy on pitchers. They need time to regain command of their pitches, plus any amount of arm strength lost during their time on the shelf.

Hamels made two rehab starts at Triple-A before rejoining the Cubs on Aug. 3. He was determined not to return too quickly, as he did so with the Rangers in 2017 after straining his right oblique. That wound up negatively affecting him the rest of the season.

Still, maybe one or two more rehab starts this time around would’ve served him well, though he felt that he could compete at the majors without his best stuff. Plus, it’s not like he was guaranteed to find his groove again by pitching in more minor league games.

Results are all that matter in the big leagues, however, and they show that while the Cubs starting rotation was okay, it wasn’t the difference maker capable of leading the team to October, as anticipated. Cubs starters finished the season with a 4.18 ERA, 10th in MLB and sixth in the National League.

Hamels’ post-injury woes played into those numbers, and he’s determined to bounce back in 2020 to prove his second half performance was a fluke. His first half showed that he still can pitch at a high-level, but he may not be in the Cubs’ plans for next season, regardless.

"There was some injury and regression (especially after injury) that led us to be closer to the pack certainly than we had envisioned,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said of the team’s rotation at his end-of-season press conference. “It’s an accomplished and experienced group, but with experience means that we could stand to add some younger talent, refresh the group as well.

“We certainly need to add depth and we need to add some youth and a little bit of a different look to the staff, as well, going forward.”

Those comments seem to indicate that Hamels won’t be back next season. The Cubs have Adbert Alzolay, Tyler Chatwood and Alec Mills as internal rotation options for 2020 and could look outside the organization for more. Hamels also made $20 million in 2019, so freeing up his salary would help the Cubs address other roster needs.

The Cubs could do a lot worse than having a healthy Cole Hamels in their rotation, though. He’s enjoyed a resurgence since the Cubs acquired him and has had plenty of success against the NL Central and at Wrigley Field overall during his career:

vs. Brewers: 20 starts, 8-5, 3.53 ERA
vs. Cardinals: 17 starts, 5-6, 2.21 ERA
vs. Pirates: 13 starts, 5-4 record, 2.52 ERA
vs. Reds: 20 starts, 11-2 record. 2.30 ERA
at Wrigley Field: 25 starts, 7-4 record, 2.20 ERA

Granted, a large portion of those starts came earlier in his career. But with how competitive the NL Central was in 2019 and will be in 2020, the results can’t be ignored.

“Obviously I do very well at Wrigley, so I hope that’s a consideration - I love to be able to pitch there,” Hamels said about the Cubs possibly re-signing him. “For some reason, it’s just the energy and I’ve mentioned it before, it’s baseball to me. And that’s what I really feed off of and that’s hopefully what they think about.”

But if the Cubs decide to part ways with Hamels, he’ll have his fair share of suitors. The Brewers and Reds each could benefit from adding starting pitching this offseason, and Hamels would bring a ton of experience to two squads that will be competing for postseason spots in 2020.

“Otherwise, I know the other teams in the division are gonna think about it,” Hamels said with a laugh. “If you have to come to Wrigley three different times [as an opponent], I don’t pitch bad there.

“I just want to win. I think that’s it. When you get the taste of it early and then you don’t have it for a while, that’s what you’re striving for. To play this game and in front of sellouts and the energy and the expectation of winning, it’s why I enjoy the game.

“That’s what I want to be able to continue to do for the few years I have left.”

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Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is now the face of baseball

Javy Baez is one step closer to becoming the unquestioned face of Major League Baseball.

For the next year, El Mago will be the cover boy for video-game-playing baseball fans, as Baez announced on his Twitter Monday morning he is gracing the cover of MLB The Show 2020:

On the eve of Game 1 of the World Series, Playstation released a video depicting why they chose Baez as the new face of the game:

Last year's cover featured Bryce Harper, announced before he even signed with the Phillies. 

Baez also joins the likes of Aaron Judge, Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Barry Bonds and David Ortiz as cover athletes for the PS4 game.

The 26-year-old Baez has become one of the most recognizable figures in the game, playing with a flair and swag that includes mind-bending baserunning maneuvers and impossible defensive plays. 

Case in point:

Baez missed the final month of the 2019 season with a fractured thumb, but still put up 29 homers and 85 RBI while ranking second on the team in WAR. In 2018, he finished second in NL MVP voting while leading the league in RBI (111) and topping the Cubs in most offensive categories. 

Theo Epstein said he never deems any player as "untouchable," but Baez is about as close as it gets for this Cubs team right now. He made the switch to shortstop full time this year and wound up with elite defensive numbers to go along with his fearsome offense and an attitude and mindset the rest of the Cubs hope to emulate.

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