Cubs

What went wrong with Cubs leadoff spot in 2019 and where they go from here

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USA TODAY

What went wrong with Cubs leadoff spot in 2019 and where they go from here

Can the Cubs get back to the postseason in 2020 without a conventional leadoff hitter? Of course.

But is bringing one aboard a necessity? Well, that’s a different conversation.

A big talking point around the Cubs this season was their struggles out of the leadoff spot. Eleven players led off at least once, though quantity didn’t translate into quality. Combined, Cubs leadoff men hit .212 (last in MLB), holding a .294 on-base percentage (also last in MLB).

“That’s an area where we can clearly do a lot better,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. “Those are unacceptable numbers that we got out of leadoff this year.”

The Cubs haven’t had a true leadoff man since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 World Series. Since then, 17 different Cubs players have led off at least one game:

Jon Jay, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Albert Almora Jr., Javier Báez, Willson Contreras, Matt Szczur, Leonys Martín, Daniel Murphy, Kris Bryant, Tommy La Stella, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp and Robel Garcia.

The rotating cast delivered at a low rate in 2019, but 2017 and 2018 were a different story. Consider these numbers — with their league ranks included — from the past three seasons.

2017: .246 AVG (24th), .324 OBP (18th).
2018: .302 AVG (fourth), .366 OBP (second)
2019: .212 (last), .294 OBP (last)

As 2018 proved, the method the Cubs have used post-Fowler can work (and at a high-level, at that). And, while the 2017 numbers don’t jump off the page, they’re several steps above those from 2019.

Which then brings forth the question: what went wrong in 2019? The answer to that lies with those who led off most for the Cubs this season: Schwarber (56 games), Heyward (33) and Zobrist (25).

Schwarber notoriously struggled as the Cubs’ leadoff man in 2017, which resulted in a demotion to Triple-A that June. However, the Cubs went back to him in 2019 due to his patience at the plate, ability to get on base and, most importantly, the lack of a better option.

The 26-year-old said in June that he felt better equipped to lead off this time around. And, while he got off to a solid start — hitting .258 with a .349 OBP in his first 23 games — those numbers eventually dipped. Schwarber finished the season with a .229 average and .304 OBP when hitting first.

Like Schwarber, Heyward has hit better elsewhere in the lineup opposed to leadoff in his career. In 169 games, he’s hitting .245 with a .330 OBP, with only his production from the seventh spot (.244 average, .326 OBP in 188 games) being lower.

Heyward asked for patience when manager Joe Maddon inserted him into the leadoff spot on July 31. Whether fans like it or not, there is a mental adjustment to hitting first. Not only do hitters get pitched to differently, but they're tasked with working a count and getting on base, setting the table for the rest of the lineup.

In 33 games leading off, Heyward hit just .147 with a .252 OBP, putting a dent in what was turning into an extremely productive offensive season.

“There were certainly guys who, it affected their performance throughout the course of the year,” Epstein said.

Why stick with Schwarber and Heyward for so long, then? Anthony Rizzo is the self-proclaimed "greatest leadoff hitter of all-time," — and his .335/.426/.602 slash line in 58 games defends this notion — but he’s more valuable to the Cubs hitting third or fourth. Thus, it comes down to the Cubs not having their best leadoff option for much of 2019 in Zobrist.

Zobrist spent four months this season on the restricted list tending to a personal matter. When he returned to the team in September, the veteran switch-hitter became a fixture atop the Cubs’ lineup. He finished the season with a .287 average and .368 OBP in 25 games leading off.

Zobrist wasn't a full-time leadoff hitter in 2018, but the Cubs' production there would've been much better in 2019 with him around. It cannot be understated how important he has been to the Cubs due to his eye for the strike zone and ability to put together a “professional at-bat.”

Zobrist’s status for 2020 is unclear right now. He’ll enter free agency after the World Series, but he very well may hang up his spikes, too. Regardless of his status, the leadoff spot will be a focal point for the Cubs this offseason.

“There are a couple of different ways to go,” Epstein said. “If we can acquire a prototypical leadoff hitter, that’d be fantastic and make everybody’s life easier going forward.”

That doesn't mean the Cubs will trade someone like Schwarber just to get a leadoff man, such as Royals second baseman/outfielder Whit Merrifield, though.

“I’ve always felt that if you could get one guy to hold down the position, that was a huge asset for a team,” Epstein said. “If you have to do that at the expense of having a hitter who drives the ball, knocks in runs, gets on base and slugs, and therefore you’re not comfortable putting him in the leadoff spot, [then] it’s not worth it."

The numbers have to improve next season, but 2018 proved that the Cubs can be successful without a true leadoff hitter. If they don't like the available options, they could improve their roster in other ways instead.

“You have to find as many outstanding offensive players as possible," Epstein said. "As a rule, the teams I’ve built have always placed a huge priority on getting on base. We’ve usually had lots of options. If you set out as a goal to lead the league in on-base percentage, you’re usually not gonna be wanting in the leadoff spot.

“So, I’d rather keep that goal, 1-through-8, find guys who get on base and it should take care of itself. But the best outcome by far is to get someone who’s comfortable in that spot, thrives in that spot, provides energy and takes the onus off everybody else.”

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Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

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USA TODAY

Cubs Talk Podcast: MLB Insider Jeff Passan talks about Cubs offseason plan

02:00 Jeff Passan predicts a significant trade or two for the Cubs this winter

03:00 Passan says the Cubs will be retooling, not rebuilding, because they still have good players

04:00 Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras are the most likley to be traded

05:00 Passan explains the perception of Contreras around the league

07:00 How active will the Cubs be in free agency?

08:00 Any chance the DH will come to the NL soon?

09:00 What would a Cubs team with Anthony Rendon look like (even though it's very unlikely)

12:00 What are you more disappointed in? The haul the Cubs gave up to the White Sox or the results they have gotten from Jose Quintana?

19:00 Is Willson Contreras the most likely Cubs player to be traded this winter?

21:00 If the DH is eventually coming to the National League, is it worth hanging on to Kyle Schwarber even longer?

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

Cubs Talk Podcast

Subscribe:

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Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

Be ready for anything: Cubs open to all trade avenues this winter

While Cubs fans sit on the edge of their seats waiting to see if Theo Epstein's front office trades away a core player — and which guy that might be — the question has really become more of a when

Both because it seems likely Epstein shakes up this Cubs roster this winter and because there's natural curiosity about the timing of such a move. 

If the Cubs don't get the type of return they're seeking for players like Willson Contreras and Kris Bryant, they are not going to trade just for trade's sake. But it's clear the roster needs a change and the front office has also shifted a good amount of focus on the long-term future of the organization — beyond 2021, when most of the core players are set to hit free agency.

As for when a major trade may come down, there's really no indication on that front. The MLB Hot Stove season has taken longer and longer to get going in recent winters and that very much appears to be the case again this 2019-20 offseason as many teams — including the Cubs — have just recently finalized their coaching staff and key front office hires.

At the GM Meetings last week, the Cubs said they were in the early stages of any offseason moves and had just started to exchange names with other teams about who is and isn't available.

They're not pigeonholing themselves into any one avenue for how the winter will play out.

"Sometimes you get a feel for the marketplace or kernels of ideas and they end up coming true and you look back and you're like, 'ah, that feel we had really matched the whole tenor of the offseason with certain teams,'" Epstein said. "Other times, you can go through a whole Russian novel's worth of twists and turns in an offseason depending on one or two player moves or clubs changing course or being able to execute things or not execute things. 

"We'll see. I think the important thing is to keep a really open mind and be prepared for all different permutations of how things can work out."

As for what shape the trades may come in, be ready for anything. 

The Cubs have said they still have no issues trading within the division, so even in a year where they're planning on competing in the wide-open NL Central, they're more concerned with improving their organization in the long run than worrying about potentially making a rival better.

Epstein also said they're not afraid of acquiring a player with only one year of team control left, as long as it makes sense. But there's no reason right now for the Cubs to mortgage the future to go all-in on 2020.

"It just depends on the player and the fit and the acquisition cost, and everything else," Epstein said. "I think we're like every team — to one extent or another, we're trying to balance an immediate future vs. a longer-term future. We knew that as we got closer to the end of the period of club control with some of our best players, we had to be increasingly mindful of if you put the longer-term future rather than just the short-term. 

"It's a bit of a transition for us, but it doesn't mean you rule anything out, even if it's something short-term. But you try to strike that right balance."

The Cubs also insist they're not locked into adding any one specific position or type of player. For example, they're not only looking to trade for centerfielders or leadoff guys — even if both are clear areas of need in the short-term.

Anything is on the table, which makes sense considering trading a core guy would also open up a hole elsewhere on the roster. If Contreras is dealt, the Cubs could feel pretty confident about Victor Caratini sliding into a larger role, but they would obviously need more catching depth both in the short- and long-term.

"I still think we have a lot of pieces that can move around the board a bit," Jed Hoyer said. "As we think about what we're gonna do [and] have conversations the whole winter, there's a big picture element to it where I think we're not gonna be entirely married to this position or that position — making moves that make sense both long-term and short-term. 

"We do have pieces that you can move around that makes us able to do that. We don't have particular holes that we feel like we have to spend the whole winter trying to fill, but rather we can make some moves maybe a little bit more strategically."

So the Cubs are saying all the right things, but what does that mean? 

For starters, it doesn't appear any major move is approaching on the horizon and regardless of what the first trade or free agent signing is, it will be just one piece to a larger puzzle. This is shaping up to be a crucial offseason in every aspect of the organization, so the final judgement of the winter will be the most important one.

But as the Cubs try to put that puzzle together and make their big-picture plans a reality, they're not going to get sidetracked by the incessant rumors and aim to continue trying to shield their players from a similar fate.

"We can't chase down every rumor," Hoyer said. "People are gonna put stuff out there about our guys and there's definitely some clickbait opportunity about our guys. We have a lot of guys who have been All-Stars and you can put a story out pretty easily that gets clicks. 

"One of the things about our players in general is we're in a big market, they're used to having their name in trade rumors, they're used to having their names out there. I think they have a sense of what's real and what's not real. But we can't chase down every rumor. We can't deny every rumor because we know that's going to happen. We have to live with that. We're not gonna add fuel to that fire, that's for sure." 

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