The Chicago Cubs’ high-powered offense contributed to much of their success in 2016, and much of the third-ranked 808 runs they scored was due to the production of Dexter Fowler at the top of the order.
Fowler had been the lead-off man on the North Side since he was acquired in 2015 and for two years was the spark plug for one of baseball’s best lineups. Now that Fowler has joined the St. Louis Cardinals, the question of who replaces him needs to be answered.
The Cubs have several options to take the reins at the top of the order, but two who are best suited to take control of the role as Cubs catalyst are Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist.
Just a few weeks ago, manager Joe Maddon confirmed that Schwarber would be the front runner to be the lead-off man on Opening Day, but is he the best option? Here’s an argument for the two leading candidates:
Case for Schwarber
Maddon isn’t one to be forced into a mold when it comes to his thinking in baseball, and the same can be said of his 2017 lead-off options. He hasn’t hidden the fact that he likes the thought of having Schwarber in the lead-off spot.
“Schwarber is the frontrunner,” Maddon said to reporters before a spring training game on Feb. 23. “You could always consider (Ben) Zobrist if you wanted to. You could talk about Jon Jay. I’d say they’re the leaders in the clubhouse right now. But primarily I like the idea of Schwarbs.”
Having a slugger lead off is not traditional baseball thinking, but as the game of baseball has evolved, the intricacies have too. Putting a Schwarber-type hitter at the top of the order is not unprecedented and has proven to be successful in today’s game. Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona turned his cleanup hitter Carlos Santana into a productive lead-off man. Santana led-off for Cleveland in 85 games in 2016 and while he hit just .260, he carried a .385 on-base percentage and scored 57 runs in those games. The Toronto Blue Jays have done the same with Jose Bautista, another big power, high-OBP player.
Schwarber has not played a full big league season yet, but with the sample size from his 2015 season, it’s easy to see why Maddon and the Cubs’ coaching staff believe he could be the answer at the top of the order. During the 2015 season, Schwarber carried a 13 percent walk rate (.355 OBP) and over a full season could similar if not better numbers across the board.
The ultimate goal of a lead-off hitter is to get on base and Schwarber can do that and more. Combine that with his ability to hit the ball out of the ballpark at any time that could be the recipe for success. And facing Schwarber, NL MVP Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo in the first inning will be no walk in the park for any pitcher.
Case for Ben Zobrist
There are few players who have been as consistent/reliable as Zobrist the last eight seasons, and those are two things lead-off hitters need to be. Zobrist is MLB’s standard when it comes to versatility in the field, but he can be just as versatile in the lineup for Chicago. The Cubs’ Swiss Army knife hit primarily out of the four and five holes last season, but he may be the best-equipped player to lead off on the roster.
One advantage Zobrist has over Schwarber is his ability to get on base. Zobrist is a jack-of-all-trades in many ways, but there is one thing he is a master of, and that is getting on base. In fact, he’s the Cubs’ best when it comes to working the free pass. Zobrist ranked eighth in MLB with 96 walks and ranked second on the team in on-base percentage (.386) just a few points behind Fowler. Zobrist is going to get on base, plain and simple. And with the thump the Cubs will have behind him, he’s sure to score a lot of runs.
Experience is also on Zobrist’s side when it comes to leading off. He has started 149 games in his career in the lead-off spot, hitting .252 with a .330 on-base percentage. Zobrist lead off in a career-high 47 games for Maddon as a member of the Tampa Bay Rays back in 2014, and he also lead off 21 times for the Cubs in 2016.
While his power may not be as prolific as Schwarber’s, Zobrist does provide his fair share of pop at the top of the order. He can also hold his own on the basepaths with decent speed, grading out as a slightly above average base runner last season and would be able to take the extra base in certain situations—unlike Schwarber.
Despite Schwarber getting the first crack at the lead-off spot, Zobrist will likely lead off against tough left handers and days when Schwarber isn’t playing left field or catching.
Ultimately, if Schwarber succeeds, he’ll be the Cubs’ lead off man going forward, and if he struggles, Zobrist will take over and Schwarber will likely move down to the cleanup spot behind Rizzo. The Cubs offense has the potential to be at least as potent as last season in 2017, but the lead-off spot will be crucial in making sure that potential comes to fruition.
Lead photo courtesy Tommy Gilligan—USA Today Sports