Why Friday’s Cubs lineup is worth rolling with for foreseeable future

Why Friday’s Cubs lineup is worth rolling with for foreseeable future

One of the most consistent things about the Cubs under manager Joe Maddon has been the team’s inconsistent starting lineup. Including Friday, the team have used 37 different batting orders in 42 games this season.

The most common Cubs starting lineup this season has featured Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez hitting second, third and fourth, respectively. Outside of that, the lineup has featured:

-Five leadoff hitters,
-Five No. 5 hitters
-Eight No. 6 hitters
-Nine No. 7 hitters
-12 No. 8 hitters
-10 No. 9 hitters

On the one hand, this should come as no surprise to anyone. The Cubs have had a plethora of position player depth during Maddon’s tenure on the North Side. Plus, the leadoff spot has been a revolving door since Dexter Fowler moved on in free agency following the 2016 season.

If Friday’s 14-6 win over the Nationals is any indication, it’s that the Cubs may have found a consistent and formidable 1-5 for their batting order. Here’s the lineup Maddon rolled out on Friday:

1. Kyle Schwarber – LF
2. Kris Bryant – 3B
3. Anthony Rizzo – 1B
4. Javier Baez – SS
5. Willson Contreras – C
6. Daniel Descalso – 2B
7. Jason Heyward – RF
8. Albert Almora Jr. – CF
9. Cole Hamels – P

The aforementioned Bryant-Rizzo-Báez grouping made its return Friday, with Anthony Rizzo re-joining the lineup after missing four games due to back tightness. Willson Contreras assumed his usual No. 5 spot in the order, with Nos. 6-9 featuring the usual mix-and-match that Maddon favors.

It’s foolish to expect the Cubs to stick with any semblance of a set starting lineup. However, the combination of Schwarber-Bryant-Rizzo-Baez-Contreras at the top of the order has the potential to be one formidable bunch.

While Schwarber has struggled to rack up hits consistently this season — he holds a .220/.345/.398 slash line — he has a .410 OBP over his last 15 games thanks to his 16 walks over the span. This includes Friday, where he went 1-for-3 with a home run and three walks.

Cubs fans remember all too well how Schwarber struggled in the leadoff spot in 2017. In 37 games hitting first, he slashed .190/.312/.381 with 24 walks compared to 48 strikeouts. His struggles earned him a trip to Triple-A Iowa and the Cubs abandoning the Schwarber-leadoff experiment altogether.

That was two seasons ago, however. Schwarber has just four multi-hit games this season, but his recent success getting on base shouldn’t go unnoticed. He’s unlikely to finish the season with a .410 OBP, but if he starts hitting more consistently, on top of maintaining his patient approach, he might be the Cubs’ best option in the leadoff spot.

In theory, having Schwarber in the leadoff spot will only generate more RBI chances for Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Contreras. Bryant (.277/.405/.581, 11 home runs, 31 RBI) has shaken off his cold start to return to the force he was before his shoulder injury last season. Rizzo (.250/.377/.521, 10 home runs, 29 RBI) is producing how we’ve come used to seeing from him and likely has another level to hit based on his batting average.

Baez (.330/.370/.615, 11 home runs, 30 RBI) and Contreras (.320/.422/.633, 11 home runs, 29 RBI) could be in the midst of career years.

Outside of days off for the latter four players, the Cubs would be wise to keep things unchanged in the 2-5 spots in their lineup. By adding Schwarber and his on-base prowess ahead of that group, we might finally have a Cubs lineup with some ounce of consistency.

Then again, things change quickly in baseball. The players above could start slumping or, in a worst-case scenario, get hurt, causing Maddon to shake things up. Ben Zobrist could return to the team at some point, and he leads the Cubs with 14 appearances in the leadoff spot this seasons.

Those three scenarios aren’t happening right now, though. A number of Cubs are rolling offensively and the group could hit another level overall if Schwarber's bat turns a corner. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. The Cubs' offense certainly isn't broken right now.

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Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Former Cubs pitcher Dan Straily, now in KBO, details games without fans

Cubs fans may remember Dan Straily. The right-hander pitched for the club in 2014, making seven appearances (one start) before getting dealt to the Houston Astros the ensuing offseason in the Dexter Fowler trade.

Straily now pitches for the Lotte Giants in the KBO, South Korea's highest level of pro ball. The league kicked its season off earlier this month without fans in attendance, a model MLB will likely follow for most (if not all) of its potential 2020 season.

Jon Frankel, a correspondent for HBO's "Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel," recently interviewed current and former KBO players about the league's return during the coronavirus pandemic. In an excerpt made available via press release, Frankel asked Straily if he misses playing in front of a crowd.

MORE: Why one medical expert remains skeptical of MLB's COVID-19 precautions

"Of course. Like, even if you're on the road, and people are just telling you how much you suck — you thrive off it," Straily said. "You feed off that energy.”

Crowd noise obviously plays a big part in an athlete's adrenaline. Not having that factor will be an adjustment for MLB in 2020, and Straily took things a step further regarding the circumstances players face without fans in attendance.

“My shortstop dove for a ball. And he missed it by, like, an inch," he said. "Like, it was an incredible effort. When he hit the ground, I heard the air leave his lungs. And we've talked about that in the dugout. Because I've never once in my life heard that.”

Not having crowds to drown out on-field noise could make for a unique viewing experience for fans at home. UFC returned on May 9, and many punches and kicks were audible on ESPN's TV broadcast.

MLB teams could play proxy crowd noise in games, but nevertheless, fans may pickup noises on their TVs previously unavailable from home.

The full episode will air Tuesday at 9 p.m. CT on HBO.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of the Chicago Cubs easily on your device.

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

How lessons from the KBO and Javy Báez can fix MLB's aging fan base problem

The cheer master’s whistle echoed through the ballpark, and dinosaur mascots wearing giant face masks danced on top of the dugout.

With fans absent due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunday’s scene didn’t quite do the Korean Baseball Organization experience justice. But it was still the league that taught Ryan Sadowski how to let loose on the field.

"I found that as a player I didn't allow myself to enjoy my success the way I should have because it's the game of baseball,” Sadowski told ESPN in 2016. “You're not supposed to show that you enjoy your success. I think it's something I learned here (in Korea), that I would take to younger kids in the States."

Major League Baseball is well aware that its status in the United States will continue to slip if it can’t figure out how to reach a younger audience. This summer presents an opportunity. If the players and owners can agree to a deal that makes the league’s early July target date a reality, for weeks it will be the only major sport on television.

Sports fans are clamoring for action after a months-long drought. What better time to draw in new fans? In that regard, the KBO could have something to teach MLB.

Sadowski is in a unique position to compare the KBO and MLB. He played in both leagues before becoming a KBO scout. Sadowski’s support for on-the-field expression is one Cubs shortstop Javier Báez would likely get behind.

Báez had a message similar to Sadowski's on MLB’s YouTube channel recently. In a show taped during Spring Training, Báez chatted with Puerto Rican recording artist Residente while running the Grammy Award-winner through baseball drills.

“In my personal opinion, I would like to teach young people growing up to enjoy [the game],” Báez said in Spanish. “And if they fail, fail having fun. And keep doing what is right. Let the kids play.”

Báez has been criticized for his playing style, most famously in 2018 when he bat-flipped after a popup. Afterward, former Pirates manager Clint Hurdle questioned Báez's “respect for the game.”

But Báez's huck wouldn’t have been out of place in Sunday’s KBO game between the NC Dinos and Hanwhu Eagles. The broadcast didn’t feature the kind of ostentatious bat flips that have become so popular on social media. But still, in consecutive innings, players on both teams tossed their bats several feet up the baseline to punctuate base hits. No uproar ensued.

The rate at which KBO bat flips have spread through Twitter speaks to a hunger for showboating among young baseball fans. Why not embrace it?   

“It’s not that it is not the correct way of doing it,” Báez told Residente of his playing style. “It’s just not the way many coaches teach it.”

In the United States, the NBA is the poster child for attracting millennial fans. In 2017-18, young adults led the league’s growth in ratings, according to Forbes. TV viewership among 18- to 34-year-olds was up 14 percent.

The NBA does an especially good job marketing its stars. Admittedly, the game lends itself to that strategy in a way that baseball does not. LeBron James can take over any game down the stretch, but Mike Trout isn’t going to get an at-bat every time the winning run is in scoring position.

But there are other ways NBA stars capture the fascination of young fans. Kids across the country grew up shrugging like Michael Jordan or pumping their arms and pounding their chests like LeBron James.  They take deep dives into YouTube, watching the most devastating dunks of all time – the more embarrassing for the defender, the better. None of that disrespects the game. The NBA and KBO have that in common.

MLB doesn’t have to adopt the KBO’s use of specific chants for each batter and embrace bat flipping for everything from home runs to ground outs – even though, by all accounts, those elements create a delightfully raucous atmosphere.

MLB doesn’t have to abolish baseball’s unwritten rules in one day. But an amendment is in order.

What if demonstrative zeal was instead embraced as a sign of respect for the game? After all, it might be MLB’s best hope of connecting to the next generation.