Dexter Fowler

Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Ben Zobrist wasted no time showing how he can impact the Cubs lineup

Tuesday night at Wrigley Field was the culmination of a storyline four months in the making: Ben Zobrist returning to man the leadoff spot in the Cubs order.

He didn't wait long to announce his presence in the 6-1 victory, working the count full in each of his first two plate appearances, drawing a walk the second time. He also bunted for a hit to start a rally, stirring up memories of when he did the same thing in L.A. in the 2016 NLCS.

"It's nice to see that at-bat at the top of the batting order — the patience and the accepting of the walk, etc.," Joe Maddon said. "He just sets a great example. That's the at-bat he works. There are times where you'll think, 'Gosh, Zo's in a real slump,' but you look up and he's on base two times a night. And he was tonight. That's just who he is."

The 38-year-old veteran made 14 starts at the top of the lineup before he went on personal leave in early-May and in those games, he posted a .300 batting average and .373 on-base percentage. 

The rest of the Cubs leadoff hitters have a combined .191 average and .266 OBP in 571 plate appearances this season.

As a team (including Zobrist's numbers), the Cubs entered play Tuesday night with far and away the worst OBP out of the top spot — .282, a full 17 points below the Detroit Tigers, who have the worst offense and record in baseball.

It's no wonder everybody's been waiting for Zobrist to come back.

"Believe me, we've missed him a lot this year," Maddon said the day before Zobrist returned. "It's been pretty obvious. [Patience] is the one thing he's always been able to do for any batting order. Even when he's not hitting, he's always going to be on base at least one, maybe two times a game just based on his eye."

Despite not playing for so long, Maddon had no qualms about throwing Zobrist right back into the fire and leading him off in his first start. Maddon felt confident leaning on the veteran's batting eye and ability to set a good example for the rest of the lineup with his professional approach.

Zobrist was also part of the leadoff equation last season, making 27 starts in the spot with a .371 OBP and .810 OPS. But he hit all over the lineup because the 2018 Cubs didn't have as much trouble getting production from their leadoff hitters — they finished second in MLB with a .366 OBP atop the order, behind only the 108-win Boston Red Sox.

This season, there has been no right mix.

Kyle Schwarber has spent more time than any other Cub in the top spot this year and while he hit for power, he posted just a .304 OBP in 56 games (253 plate appearances). 

Jason Heyward has been the leadoff man lately, but he's sporting just a .554 OPS in those 32 games (147 plate appearances) and is hitless in his last 28 at-bats.

Albert Almora Jr. (14 games) and Daniel Descalso (11 games) have also seen extended time up there as Maddon has tried to mix-and-match with just about everybody else at one point or another — Robel Garcia, Javy Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Ian Happ, Tony Kemp, Willson Contreras.

"Last year, it was a source of conversation and we didn't have a typical guy," Maddon said. "But if you looked at our numbers at the end of the year, they were actually pretty good. I don't think we're rivaling that moment yet this year. It is nice when the guy on top is definitely stirring it up a little bit. 

"You can't underestimate when you get guys on at the top that are consistently on base, what that does for the rest of the group."

Of course, the leadoff spot has been a source of constant debate surrounding this team since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 championship season. 

In July, Maddon asked the veteran Heyward to step up and try to fill the role and has commended the way he embraced the role, even if the results weren't always there. When he was first moved into the leadoff spot, Heyward asked his manager to be patient with him up there, but the Cubs can't afford to be too patient right now with a 3.0-game deficit in the NL Central standings and only 24 games left to play after Tuesday.

Heyward has hit just .147 with a .252 OBP in the top spot, but the Cubs are 22-10 when he leads off.

"He's been great," Maddon said of Heyward, while also acknowledging Zobrist presents the team with different options in lineup construction. "He understands and he's battled really hard and our record with him hitting leadoff has been pretty darn good. Listen, he's such an important part of us winning. 

"[Moving him to leadoff] was out of necessity as much as anything else and he knew that, but I have so much respect for him as a player. His intent is to play the game properly every day and win. That's his intent. It's not about him so much. It's about everything else, and that's what I really appreciate about him."

Zobrist won't play every day, but when he does, expect to see a lot of him in the leadoff spot as the Cubs work to optimize their lineup in search of some offensive consistency. 

"My body feels pretty good right now," he said. "I'm a little fatigued, probably just the mental fatigue of getting back into it. But we got an off-day tomorrow and I'll feel pretty good on Thursday is my guess. I feel great physically, still kinda getting into the swing of routine mentally."

Asked about his workload down the stretch, he joked it should be obvious when he'll need a break:

"I think probably if I get fatigued, it'll probably show in the numbers, so they'll know when to sit me."

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2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Cardinals

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AP

2019 MLB preview and predictions: How Cubs stack up against Cardinals

The National League looks as strong as ever, with as many as 12 of the 15 teams planning to contend in 2019.

The Cubs had a quiet winter, transactionally speaking, but almost every other team in the NL bolster their roster this offseason. 

But expectations haven't changed at the corner of Clark and Addison. After a disappointing finish to 2018, Kris Bryant and Co. once again have their sights set on another World Series.

With that, let's take a look at all of the teams that could stand in the way of the Cubs getting back to the Fall Classic:

St. Louis Cardinals

2018 record: 88-74, 3rd in NL Central

Offseason additions: Paul Goldschmidt, Andrew Miller, Matt Wieters, Chris Beck, Drew Robinson

Offseason departures: Luke Weaver, Tyson Ross, Bud Norris, Matt Adams, Carson Kelly, Patrick Wisdom

X-factor: Marcell Ozuna

The Cardinals traded for Ozuna last winter, expecting to get the hitter that just put up 37 homers, 124 RBI, a .924 OPS and hit .312 while coming off back-to-back All-Star appearances.

Instead, they got a solid hitter who was only slightly above average (106 OPS+) and saw a major dip in power (23 homers, 88 RBI). 

Which player is the real Marcell Ozuna?

He's still only 28 and is a free agent after this season. The Cardinals are counting on him to be one of their big bats in the middle of the lineup, likely hitting cleanup and lending protection to Goldschmidt.

We know Goldschmidt and Matt Carpenter are going to hit if they're healthy and we know guys like Paul DeJong, Yadi Molina, Kolten Wong and Harrison Bader will be thorns in the Cubs' side at various points in 2019. But we don't know what type of player Ozuna will be.

You could say the same thing about Dexter Fowler, who has hit just .230 with a .739 OPS in a Cardinals uniform after signing an $82.5 million deal with the organization before the 2017 season. He still has three years left on his contract and if he can't regain his form, will the Cardinals be forced to stick a guy making more than $16 million a year on the bench in favor of better offensive options Jose Martinez or Tyler O'Neill?

Projected lineup

1. Matt Carpenter - 3B
2. Paul DeJong - SS
3. Paul Goldschmidt - 1B
4. Marcell Ozuna - LF
5. Dexter Fowler - RF
6. Yadier Molina - C
7. Kolten Wong - 2B
8. Harrison Bader - CF

Projected rotation

1. Miles Mikolas
2. Jack Flaherty
3. Adam Wainwright
4. Michael Wacha
5. Dakota Hudson

Outlook

The last time the Cardinals were in the playoffs, they watched as Javy Baez sent Wrigley Field into a frenzy with a blast to the right-centerfield bleachers. That 3-run shot came off John Lackey and both he and Jason Heyward had yet to don a Cubs uniform. Only one pitcher that threw for the Cubs in that game is still on the team (Pedro Strop).

Oh yeah, and the Cubs were still a year away from winning their first championship in more than a century.

In other words: It was a long time ago. It feels like a lifetime given how often the Cardinals were in the postseason prior to 2016.

So yeah, this organization and their fanbase are hungry as hell to get back to October. They proved that this winter.

The Cardinals didn't make a ton of moves over the offseason, but the decisions they made are very impactful — trading for Goldschmidt and signing Miller and Wieters.

Then they went out and reportedly extended Goldschmidt through the 2024 season. He is one of the best players in the NL and brings a legitimate stud to the middle of the lineup. Now the Cubs are forced to face him 19 times a season for at least the next half-decade and he carries a .353/.471/.699 slash line (1.170 OPS) against Chicago pitching in 43 career games. (The somewhat good news is that Goldschmidt also tears up Brewers pitching to the tune of a .366/.478/.652 slash line in 46 career games.)

Miller had a rough 2018 season, sporting a 4.24 ERA and 1.38 WHIP while pitching only 34 innings due to injuries. But he's still only 33 and was arguably the best reliever in the game from 2014-17 when he posted a 1.72 ERA, 0.79 WHIP and 14.5 K/9 in 260 appearances. If he's even close to that pitcher again, that's a huge stabilizing force at the back end of the Cardinals bullpen. However, he's had a really rough go of it in spring training thus far:

Wieters has never turned into the star many were expecting him to become, but he'll be good depth for St. Louis behind Molina.

This offense should be just fine, especially once Jedd Gyorko returns from injury and if they can somehow find a way to get Martinez and O'Neill in the lineup often.

The defense is also going to be great, with speedster Bader chasing everything down in the outfield and Molina/Wong/DeJong up the middle.

The pitching staff is where most of the questions lie. 

Carlos Martinez has been their ace in the past, but he experienced shoulder issues this spring and it's unknown how much time he'll miss or if he'll be a starter or reliever when he returns. He only pitched 118.2 innings last year due to the same injury.

Veteran relievers Brett Cecil and Luke Gregerson are also both dealing with arm injuries and not expected to be in the Opening Day bullpen.

Miles Mikolas was an incredible find for the Cardinals last year and after a fantastic season (18-4, 2.83 ERA, 1.07 WHIP), they made sure to lock him up for another four years. 23-year-old Jack Flaherty was a Top-50 prospect entering 2018 and exploded onto the MLB scene with a very good season that included a ridiculous 10.8 K/9 rate. He looks like a potential Cy Young contender this year and gives the Cardinals a nice 1-2 punch in the rotation even without Martinez.

After that, however, it's up in the air. Adam Wainwright is 37, Michael Wacha has been injured/inconsistent and rookie Dakota Hudson (just named the team's fifth starter Thursday) has only 27.1 MLB innings under his belt.

Meanwhile, in the bullpen, 22-year-old Jordan Hicks is looking like the closer with his 100+ mph fastball, but he also has some control issues (5.2 BB/9 in his rookie season) and blew more games (7) than he saved (6) last year. After him and Miller, there's a hodge podge of unproven guys like John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, Chasen Shreve and others. Former top prospect Alex Reyes is looming as a potential X-factor in the bullpen, but he has pitched only 27 innings since he had Tommy John surgery after the 2016 season.

Expect this to be a three-team race in the NL Central all year and it would not be at all surprising to see the Cardinals on top come October. 

But for now, I'll put them just behind the Cubs only because I have question marks about their outfielders (Ozuna and Fowler) and some of their pitching. I also think the Cubs have more depth than any team in the division and are better built for the marathon that is a 162-game season.

Prediction: 2nd in NL Central, wild-card team

All 2019 previews & predictions

San Francisco Giants
Arizona Diamondbacks
San Diego Padres
Colorado Rockies
Los Angeles Dodgers
Miami Marlins
New York Mets
Atlanta Braves
Philadelphia Phillies
Washington Nationals
Cincinnati Reds
Pittsburgh Pirates
Milwaukee Brewers
St. Louis Cardinals

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The Cubs should make Kris Bryant their full-time leadoff hitter

The Cubs should make Kris Bryant their full-time leadoff hitter

Here's a hot take for you: Kris Bryant should be the Cubs' everyday leadoff man.

It might seem too "out there," even for Joe Maddon. And it certainly wouldn't be a conventional choice.

But maybe — just maybe — it would be the best thing for this Cubs roster. 

Since Dexter Fowler left, the Cubs have had a revolving door atop their batting order — ranging from Kyle Schwarber to Jon Jay to Ian Happ to Ben Zobrist to Albert Almora Jr. to Daniel Murphy. And we can't forget the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time: Anthony Rizzo.

After tabbing Schwarber and Happ as "the guy" the last two springs, respectively, Maddon and the Cubs have decided not to name anybody the main leadoff hitter for 2019 and instead plan to play matchups, with Zobrist seeing a lot of time against right-handed pitchers and Almora in there against lefties.

That approach is totally fine — the Cubs did the same thing last year and wound up leading the National League in average, on-base percentage and wRC (weighted runs created) out of the leadoff spot. 

But Cubs players have also been vocal about the desire for a bit more stable lineups and in order for that to happen, it has to start at the top.

Maddon and Co. are going the way of a platoon at leadoff because they have nobody on the roster they feel can fill the role every day, setting the table for the heart of the order (Bryant, Rizzo and Javy Baez) consistently.

But what if they simply move that heart of the order up a spot?

Hitting Bryant-Rizzo-Baez 1-2-3 would ensure the Cubs' three best hitters would bat in the first inning of every game and come up to the plate more times than any other hitter in the Cubs lineup. Imagine being an opposing starting pitcher and you're just trying to get a feel for what's working on a given day, trying to get settled in and instead you have to go up against the 2016 NL MVP, a perennial MVP candidate and the 2018 NL MVP runner-up back-to-back-to-back.

Plus, hitting Bryant first forces the opposition to either give him a good pitch to hit or risk walking him and putting a runner on base with nobody out in front of the Cubs top two RBI guys. Bryant has a career .542 slugging percentage with the bases empty, which can help stake the Cubs to an early lead in games either via homer or an extra-base hit that immediately puts a runner in scoring position with nobody out. 

All told, Bryant is the Cubs' top on-base guy and also one of the team's best baserunners — two hugely important skills to capably fill the leadoff role. 

Now, the leadoff guy doesn't only come to the plate with nobody out and nobody on. They're really only "leading off" once a game. 

So beyond the first inning, there are ways the Cubs can take advantage of this lineup maneuvering. 

For starters, they can hit the pitcher eighth, as Maddon is prone to doing anyways. The 9-hole could be a great spot for guys like Almora or Bote or Descalso, depending on the matchup. That would place an extra hitter in front of Bryant so he's not always immediately following the pitcher's spot.

Bryant is the Cubs' best all-around hitter, but he actually struggles with runners in scoring position.

During his rookie season of 2015, he hit .292 with a .906 OPS with runners in scoring position.

From the start of 2016 on, Bryant has hit only .257 with a .455 slugging percentage with runners in scoring position, never posting a season batting average higher than .273 in such situations (2018). Compare that to Rizzo and Baez, who hit .297 and .278, respectively, with runners in scoring position a year ago.

This isn't a huge deal, obviously, as Bryant still puts up amazing numbers (when he's not hurt). 

It also wouldn't be a huge jump for Bryant to move from the No. 2 spot (where he normally hits) to leadoff because it'd only be a slight drop-off in RBI opportunities. Last season, the Cubs leadoff hitters came up to the plate 151 times with runners in scoring position compared to 162 such instances for the No. 2 hitters. (Incidentally, both ranked at the bottom in the 2018 Cubs lineup in terms of sheer RBI opportunities.)

Would Bryant be OK moving up to the leadoff spot? It probably wouldn't be a tough sell, as he led off some in college and has always been fine with moving around the diamond defensively. 

He also thrives with a "pass the baton" mentality at the plate and has talked about how he feels best when he's simply trying to not make outs and keep the line moving for the next guy. That's the exact mindset a leadoff hitter should have.

So why not Rizzo as the full-time leadoff guy? He checks a lot of the same boxes we rattled off here for Bryant.

The simple answer to that is the handedness of the Cubs' top hitters. Going Bryant-Rizzo-Baez means righty-lefty-righty — which Maddon and Co. like, as it makes it harder to match up against (especially in the latter innings). 

A healthy Bryant returning to the Cubs lineup is going to be a huge boost no matter where he hits. But maybe he could help the team most hitting leadoff.

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