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