Albert Almora Jr.

CubsTalk Podcast: 2019 predictions

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CubsTalk Podcast: 2019 predictions

On the latest Cubs Talk Podcast, Luke Stuckmeyer, David Kaplan, Kelly Crull and Tony Andracki make their predictions for the 2019 season, discuss who will be the team's MVP and debate which NL Central team will be the toughest challenge for the Cubs this season.

1:00 - NL MVP odds for Baez, Bryant, Rizzo and Schwarber
4:00 - NL Cy Young award odds
7:00 - Home run totals for Cubs sluggers
9:00 - Javy Baez' potential at the plate
10:00 - Was bad weather a factor for the Cubs offensive struggles early last season
12:00 - Who will lead the Cubs in home runs this season
13:00 - Who will lead the Cubs in saves in 2019?
15:30 - Who will be the team MVP in 2019?
18:00 - What is your biggest concern for the upcoming season?
21:00 - Who has a breakout season for the Cubs in 2019?
22:00 - Vegas has Cubs at 87 1/2 wins.. over or under?
25:00 - What NL Central team will be toughest on the Cubs?

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

 

 

Cubs Talk Podcast

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19 for '19: Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?

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19 for '19: Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Who will be the leadoff hitter?

It’s funny that the leadoff hitter mystery has been such a hot-button topic this winter, given that the Cubs got the 4th-best production of any team in baseball out of the leadoff spot last year. Of the 5 different guys that logged 50 or more PA’s in the leadoff spot, four of them were significantly better than league-average, as only Ian Happ posted a below-average wRC+ (88):

Anthony Rizzo (138 PAs): 161 wRC+
Daniel Murphy (131 PAs): 125 wRC+
Ben Zobrist (140 PAs): 121 wRC+
Albert Almora Jr (213 PAs): 117 wRC+

Frankly, I expect the breakdown to look a lot like this again. I’ll believe that Joe Maddon is on board with more consistent lineups when I see it, and not a minute earlier.

I’ll also go on record as saying in a perfect world, Anthony Rizzo is consistently the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. I get the argument that his power is wasted at the top of the order, but between Javy Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant, the Cubs aren’t short on slugging. For his career, Rizzo has a hair under 200 PA’s (198) in the leadoff spot, and here are his numbers:

.317/.409/.587 with a .996 OPS and .411 wOBA, all good for a 159 wRC+

What’s more, of the 14 Cubs hitters that reached at least 100 PA’s in 2018, only Zobrist had a higher on-base percentage. HOWEVER, when you look at Zobrist’s career OBP out of the leadoff spot (.336), it’s not nearly as impressive as Rizzo’s (.409). Granted, Zobrist has like, literally 9X as many PAs out of the leadoff spot as Rizzo does, so his numbers are going to look lesser.

In reality, Almora, Zobrist, and Happ will split duties, based on who’s playing where and what arm the opposing pitcher throws a baseball with. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. Almora is one of the Cubs’ “faster” guys, and while you’d like to see a leadoff guy walk more than 5 percent of the time, his overall slash line from that spot speaks for itself. Zobrist is also a totally fine choice; he was Top-5 in lowest K percentage for leadoff hitters last season (Rizzo was 4th), 13th in BB percentage (Rizzo 19th) and 14th in OBP (Rizzo was SECOND). Zobrist’s power is declining, and he’s not a detriment on the basepaths. It’s a cozy fit.

Still, Rizzo should be leading off. You’re on a one-year deal, Joe. Let’s get weird.

-Cam Ellis

Rizzo undoubtedly will spend time adding to his resume as the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time this season. Between his comfort level and love of hitting there, Maddon's willingness to buck convention and the Cubs' lack of an everyday fit at leadoff, it's bound to happen.

We'll also see the occassional Kris Bryant or Javy Baez or Willson Contreras up there, too, as Maddon often likes to put his best hitters in that spot for a day or two to try to get them going during a slump.

But Cam's right - expect a whole lot of Zobrist, Almora and Happ in the leadoff spot in 2019. Maddon has already acknowledged Zobrist will spend a lot of time up there against right-handed pitchers while Almora is a great fit vs. southpaws. But neither guy will be a consistent option atop the order - Zobrist will need plenty of rest at age 38 and Almora still doesn't walk much and has to develop more against righties.

Daniel Descalso will probably get some time in that spot, too, especially if he continues the on-base skills he flashed last year (career-high .353 OBP). Even Kyle Schwarber could find his way up there, because he still fits the bill of everything Maddon and the Cubs are looking for in the right matchup - an on-base machine who can also give the team an early lead with a dinger.

Happ is an interesting case. At this time last year, he was "The Guy" heralded for the leadoff spot, a year after the whole Schwarber experiment didn't work out. On paper, he checks every box - great patience and OBP skills (he posted a .353 OBP last year despite a .233 AVG), speed/good baserunning skills, some pop, switch-hitting ability and youth as somebody who can grow into the position. He very well could be the Cubs' leadoff hitter of the future, but obviously he has some hurdles to cross in the short-term. His strikeout rate was ridiculous last year and that will have to improve, even if he's still walking at an elite rate. Happ also has to find better success as a right-handed hitter against left-handed pitchers (.202 AVG, .608 OPS against southpaws last year) if he were ever to be the stable option atop the order.

The Cubs won't committ to one guy in the leadoff spot in 2019, which is the right move. Too much was made of the Cubs' lack of lineup stability last year and far too much has been made of the lack of a consistent leadoff hitter since Dexter Fowler left town. As Cam mentioned, the Cubs were plenty productive in the leadoff spot a year ago and that combination of guys actually led the NL in OBP out of the No. 1 spot (.366). At the end of the day, that's all that really matters in setting the table for Bryant, Rizzo, Baez and Co.

But hey, if the Cubs truly wanted a stable option to plug-and-play in the leadoff spot, maybe the best option would be Kris Bryant...

-Tony Andracki

The complete 19 for '19 series:

19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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How Joe Maddon plans to tweak the Cubs' lineup situation in 2019

How Joe Maddon plans to tweak the Cubs' lineup situation in 2019

MESA, Ariz. — Did you really think the Cubs would have a set, stable lineup in 2019?

That's cute. 

It's not going to happen. Maybe someday, but not this year and probably not next season, either.

There's no one person to blame for it. Joe Maddon doesn't want a stable lineup with 7-8 regulars playing every day. Theo Epstein doesn't want it. Jed Hoyer doesn't want it. The "Geek Squad" doesn't recommend it. And the roster doesn't allow for it.

There's too much depth here (assuming everybody is healthy), but Maddon does have a different plan for navigating the ever-changing lineup within the Cubs clubhouse.

In the past, Maddon and bench coaches Davey Martinez (2015-17) and Brandon Hyde (2018) would text the lineup to players the night before a game, so everybody knew if they were starting or not before they went to sleep that night.

Maddon is going to change that up for this season, instead trying to communicate a series at a time to players.

So if the Cubs have a 3-game set beginning on a Monday night in boring ole St. Louis, for example, Maddon or new bench coach Mark Loretta would — in theory — text players on that Sunday night to let them know what the projected lineups would be for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

The whole "set lineup" narrative got a lot of traction last year as an ill-informed potential reason for why the Cubs lineup may have struggled or why some young players took a step back. It picked up steam the day after the Cubs were stunned in that National League Wild-Card game when Epstein answered a question candidly by admitting some players in the clubhouse were frustrated with how often the lineup was changed around. 

"This year, I'm gonna make a solid attempt to put series out at a time," Maddon said. "And then again, I'm not even sure if that's gonna work well or not because a guy might be upset for two days knowing he's not gonna play until the third. So you don't know how this is all gonna play out. 

"But it's there. This is how we're gonna play it. If you don't like it, come see me — this is why I'm doing it, this is the reason, etc. I really believe that the guys are gonna be fine with all of that. Just the interaction right now, I think guys have grown up a bit and understand when you don't play, it's not because someone doesn't like you.

"Part of it is developmental, part of it is matchup. Some of it's trying to put you in a situation to make you look better. It takes time for young players to understand it. I think veterans get that a little bit better. Even though a veteran might want to play more often, he understands his role may be in this and it might be the best thing for him. It just takes time."

Maddon and the Cubs rolled out 152 different lineups in 163 games last year (not including the pitcher's spot), so yeah, there was quite a bit of change. 

And that will continue again, maybe even moreso than last year. The only real change among the position player group at the moment is Daniel Descalso in for Tommy La Stella, and Descalso figures to draw more starts than La Stella did during his Cubs tenure.

We know Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant are going to play every single day they're healthy and now Javy Baez is in that mix after last year's breakout season. Willson Contreras will still probably receive the lion's share of playing time at catcher (4-5 starts a week, at least).

But beyond that, everything's in flux — including where everybody bats in the order on a given day.

Ben Zobrist will be 38 in May and the Cubs found a nice rhythm and routine with his playing time last year, only starting a couple games in a row before some off time.

Albert Almora Jr. will play center field (and probably lead off) against left-handed starting pitchers and some righties. Ian Happ will still see plenty of time in center against right-handed pitchers when Almora is on the bench.

Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward will start in left and right field, respectively, against right-handed starting pitchers. Their playing time against southpaws is still to be determined, and Heyward could also shift to center on occasion.

Descalso will play some second base and will also move around the field in a similar fashion as Zobrist. Happ may be in the second base mix, too, and will back up the corner infield spots in addition to his outfield time.

And the Cubs can't just give up on David Bote and banish him to the bench full-time at age 25 with only 210 big-league plate appearances under his belt, so there has to be time for him to start on occasion, too.

Oh yeah, and there's Victor Caratini (or whoever else is backing up Contreras) drawing a couple starts a week.

That's a long, winding way of spelling out — this Cubs position player group is packed with depth and they now no longer have a guy perfect for the bench/pinch-hitting role the way La Stella was. 

The Cubs are still going to play matchups, as most good teams around baseball do. Why consistently throw out a lefty who struggles against southpaws when you have a right-handed hitter available to plug in?

Plus, this model helps maintain rest and avoids running players into the ground when the Cubs hope — and expect — to be playing deep into October again this fall.

The starting lineup is almost never about who's hot and who's not.

"The guys that are more situational or platoon sometimes might read the fact that they had a good day or a bad day that they don't play the next day is because they had a bad day," Maddon said. "No. 'This is a better matchup for this fella and not you.' Self-evaluators, guys really coming to terms with that. Sometimes, it's difficult.

"...It's just the way it is right now and I'm OK with that. But you hear more about it now, there's more of an ability to publicly complain via different methods and so it becomes more of an issue. [In the past], guys would feel that way, but they wouldn't say anything."

Maddon admitted he probably has roughly a player a month, on average, come into his office to discuss their frustrations over playing time or lineup changing. He prefers that straight-up, eye-to-eye method and a private conversation behind closed doors to hash the problem out and communicate through it.

But none of those meetings will drastically change the Cubs' plan of action.

Any grand delusions about consistent, stable lineups are just history — and rather ancient history, at that. Look around the game — the Dodgers, Astros, Red Sox, Brewers all use ever-changing lineups to try to maximize matchups and skillsets.

The Cubs were built this way by design, with the depth to withstand all the metaphorical curveballs thrown your way amid a long season.

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