On a team with few holes and championship expectations, who hits leadoff for the Cubs has become a prominent conversation.
You don't need to go back too far to discover that not having a prototypical leadoff hitter doesn't mean much of anything. After all, the Cubs lost Dexter Fowler, couldn't find anyone to consistently hit leadoff and still scored 822 runs, the second most in the National League.
But a new season and no additions to the lineup that put the leadoff conversation to rest means it's a talking point yet again. So who will hit leadoff for the Cubs in 2018?
"There’s very few real, legitimate No. 1 hitters out there these days, and when you find one, you like to hold on to it," Joe Maddon said earlier in spring training. "I think a lot of teams, they’ll put different guys up there. It’s almost like having a closer. If you don’t have a legitimate closer, it’s still OK to work the ninth inning in other ways. If you don’t have a prototypical leadoff hitter, you can work it in other ways. I’m fine with that.
"I think we scored a lot of runs last year. We were fine with that. The conversation is what it is. I’m very comfortable with moving that around based on guys who get on base often. That’s the whole point. And when you can combine that with a guy that has a high on-base and then he hits homers, too, that’s even more attractive. We have a lot of guys who are capable. We’ll let it play out, you’ll see a lot of guys in the one hole throughout spring training. But I know by the time the season arrives, whoever we have hitting there, I’ll be happy with that."
Of course, there's room for improvement. Last season, only the bottom two spots in the lineup produced lower numbers than the leadoff hole, with the Cubs slashing .246/.324/.422 at the top of the order. Getting better there means being an even better team, all important when the expectations are World Series or bust.
But whether it matters a lot or a little, here's a list of candidates for the job.
Remember when Rizzo dubbed himself, jokingly of course, "the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time?" Albert Almora Jr. does.
"We have the best leadoff guy in the game with Rizzo," Albert Almora Jr. said earlier in spring training. "Five home runs in three days it felt like."
It was pretty impressive. All in all, Rizzo's 14 games batting leadoff yielded 15 hits, five homers, two doubles, a triple, 12 RBIs, 11 runs scored and six walks in 59 plate appearances.
"I said, ‘If I’m going to lead off this year, you’ve got to teach me.’ He said, ‘I am the best leadoff hitter in the world.’ ‘All right, you do it then.'"
Anthony, what do you say?
Well, that settles that.
Schwarber, as I'm sure no one has forgotten, was the Cubs' leadoff guy out of the gates last spring. It's not that he wasn't suited for it — he is really good at getting on base — but he really didn't succeed there. That Maddon decision didn't sit well with many fans, and it didn't look like a good idea at all when Schwarber was sent down to Triple-A for a spell in the middle of the campaign.
The slimmed-down Schwarber figures to be much better this year — and even in what was considered a disastrous 2017, he still hit 30 home runs — but the leadoff spot might not be the place for him.
Kyle, will you be batting leadoff again?
"Ask the manager," he said. "I think we’re all ears to that, and whatever he writes in there we’re all going to do."
Because the Cubs don't have a prototypical leadoff hitter, Zobrist's name comes up. And he's fine with it, fitting the bill somewhat as a guy who gets on base and could set the table ahead of boppers like Kris Bryant and Rizzo.
"He’s definitely in the mix to do that," Maddon said of Zobrist. "He always works a good at-bat. I’ve always been comfortable with that, he’s done it in the past, so he’s capable. We haven’t decided that, but yes, of course he’s a candidate to do that."
"I know I can do it, but I have no idea," Zobrist said. "We have other guys that can do it, too. It’s not an easy position to hit in, I can say that. It takes a little bit of experience and practice to do it and be good at it, and some guys are more comfortable there than others. It hasn’t been one of my most comfortable spots to hit in over the course of my career, but I know I can do it if it comes to that."
That's the thing, though: Zobrist hasn't necessarily had great success out of the leadoff spot in his career. In fact, it's perhaps the worst spot, statistically, in his career to hit. His slash line in 887 career plate appearances at the top of the lineup is .241/.330/.389. Only batting ninth does he have lower career averages in all three of those categories. Last season, those numbers were kind of flipped during what was statistically the worst season of his career. He slashed .253/.330/.438 in 182 plate appearances leading off in 2017, so Maddon might be looking at Zobrist as a candidate from the "what have you done for me lately" perspective.
But then there's the question of how often Zobrist will even be in the lineup. Coming off that down 2017 and as his age continues to advance, Zobrist's playing time might take a hit in favor of younger guys like Almora, Ian Happ and Javy Baez. Plus, despite much talk of how great he's feeling after an injury-plagued 2017, Zobrist has been out of action through much of spring training with a back issue.
This one's kind of an off-the-wall suggestion, but one that's been talked about during the offseason. If Maddon's looking for a guy with great on-base skills, look no further than Bryant, who followed up the .385 on-base percentage of his MVP season with a .409 on-base percentage in 2017, good for fourth in the National League and seventh in baseball.
This doesn't seem likely, with Bryant seemingly entrenched in the two-hole, where he hit in all but 41 of his 151 games last season. But Maddon got creative with Rizzo last season, so maybe Bryant is an option should the leadoff spot become a real issue at some point during 2018.
Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr.
Happ and Almora are getting leadoff love in the early days of Cactus League play. Happ already has a pair of homers out of the leadoff spot, including one off Madison Bumgarner. Given that that could be a center field platoon this season, platooning those two in the leadoff spot might end up being the way Maddon goes.
Last year, Almora dominated against left-handed pitchers, slashing .342/.411/.486 in his 125 plate appearances. Against righties, he slashed .271/.291/.420.
Last year, Happ had a better on-base percentage and slugging percentage against righties, slashing .243/.334/.529. He had a better batting average against lefties, slashing .276/.313/.476. Nineteen of his 24 rookie homers came against right-handers.
A platoon between the two makes a lot of sense, though even if they spent the majority of the time at the top of the order, the way Maddon mixes and matches his lineups on a daily basis means it would not be at all surprising to see a whole host of different guys up there.
"I’ll do whatever they tell me to. I have enough confidence in myself where I can hit anywhere or play anywhere, it doesn’t really matter," Almora said. "I know Joe will take care of that, and I’ll just put my head down and play.
"We’re going to be great, we’re going to be fine. Anyone can hit leadoff, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to find ways to drive in runs and be the best team out there."
They did it without a prototypical leadoff man in 2017. Why should 2018 be any different?