As we sit in the doldrums of winter, awaiting any sort of news surrounding potential additions to the North Side of Chicago, there’s still plenty to be discussed surrounding the team as currently constructed. And with some of the buzz around such hypothetical additions relating to the number one spot in the batting order, the leadoff spot is certainly something worth pondering. Despite the Cubs’ offensive production in 2017, there was a lack of consistency that (at least to an extent) stemmed from a lack of stability in the top spot. That absence of consistency came both in terms of performance, as well as personnel.
Kyle Schwarber began the year as Joe Maddon’s experiment, with the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, and Jon Jay, among others, being sprinkled in as the year progressed. Continuing to roll out a batting order that features Schwarber or Zobrist at the top spot hasn’t exactly bred confidence throughout the fanbase this winter, with both the former and Anthony Rizzo likely needing to find their way to a spot where the ability to drive in runs is more frequent. Zobrist could be an option there, given his approach and contact ability historically, but his performance in 2017 also riddles the situation with doubt. And while an addition of someone like a Christian Yelich or a Lorenzo Cain would be stellar for that particular situation, it just doesn’t seem likely.
Considering the roster in place, as it stands at present date, there are at least a few options that Maddon could plug into the top spot in the order. The names Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras have been bandied about this offseason, with Rizzo, Zobrist, and Schwarber also likely getting at least some level of consideration. We can very likely rule out Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and whoever takes up centerfield on a given day (pending an outside addition), all for a multitude of reasons. Let’s toss Jason Heyward out too, without much need for an explanation there either. And while I genuinely think that Ben Zobrist wasn’t as bad as his low points in 2017 would indicate, we’ll assume he finds his at-bats elsewhere in the order. As such, let’s take a brief overview of what the candidates can and cannot bring to the table (setting) for the Cub batting order in 2018 (focusing more on skill set and potential, rather than statistical output, given the low amount of plate appearances in such a situation, if any):
Schwarber’s stint in the top spot last season was a failure, but how much of that has to do with the leadoff spot and how much of it has to do with Schwarber’s struggles just in general? Perhaps a season in which he’s refreshed, in incredible shape, and not coming off of major surgery could be a remedy to allow him to succeed in such a position. He’s obviously not the prototypical leadoff man and you do question if he makes enough contact to be successful in that spot (72% contact rate in 2017). His .190 average in the top spot doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, either. Nonetheless, he does have the right approach and zone awareness to be an effective tablesetter (4.34 pitches per plate appearance), and his underrated athleticism isn’t going to be underrated much longer, if this offseason regiment is any indication. It won’t be received particularly well, but it’ll be interesting to see if Maddon gives it another run with Schwarber in the top spot.
This isn’t nearly as bad an idea as would first be believed. Rizzo declared himself the greatest leadoff hitter of all-time at one point, as he hit an even .300 and added five home runs. In terms of skill set and stability, there may not actually be a better option than Rizzo, who has been as steady a performer as anyone in baseball over the course of the last four years. He has the right approach, good zone awareness, and makes contact at a rate over 10 points higher than the likes of someone like Schwarber. He’s also an underrated baserunner, even if he doesn’t exactly flash the wheels. At the same time, as well-rounded a hitter as Rizzo is, you want that consistency somewhere he can drive in runs on the regular, especially given the Cubs’ propensity for struggling with runners in scoring position last year. I still can’t help but be intrigued by the idea after what we saw last year, though.
My immediate reaction to the idea of Kris Bryant in the leadoff spot is that he strikes out too much to be in the leadoff spot, even if he’s managed to cut the K rate in each of the last three seasons (30.6%, 22.0%, 19.2%, respectively), while also increasing his contact rate (66.3%, 73.3%, 77.7%, respectively). My secondary reaction is that he’s far too essential a run-producer to utilize in the no. 1 spot in the order. Those trends mentioned earlier, though, would appear to favor him for such a spot, especially when you toss in his excellent baserunning ability. In terms of pure skill set, he might be the best option. But in terms of overall lineup construction, Maddon might be better off with him in the two or three spot, especially given the power factor. Leadoff hitters aren’t lanky speedsters anymore, but that’s a whole lot of ISO to be throwing atop the batting order if you’re Joe Maddon.
Contreras is such an intriguing option here. There are some drawbacks, given the strikeout rate that has averaged over 23% over the last two years. And there are noticeable mental lapses in plate discipline when he finds himself down in the count. At the same time, he does walk quite a bit, though, with a BB rate over 10% in 2017. He hits the ball hard as well, with a hard hit rate over 35% in 2017, which fed into that ISO over .220. And you talk about a tone setter from a mental standpoint? Few can match the focus and intensity of Contreras, which could provide something of an unquantifiable mental edge. As an emerging source of power, though, do you really want to deploy him here, while also subjecting your starting catcher to more frequent wear and tear that comes along with more plate appearances? Admittedly, that latter point may be a minor concern, but for a player expected to shoulder a heavy load behind the dish, it’s a concern nonetheless. Overall, while Contreras is a fun idea, it still comes across as unlikely, but a couple of odd appearances there throughout the year don’t seem out of the question.
As the spring begins to creep ever closer, this’ll certainly be one of the hot-button issues heading into the exhibition season. With much of the Cubs’ roster largely solidified, that leadoff spot is of tremendous intrigue. Is there a favorite for the spot right now? Maddon might favor a Schwarber redux in that spot, or perhaps he turns to his old reliable Ben Zobrist. In a vacuum, though, it’s difficult to hate the likes of Rizzo, Bryant, or Contreras in such a position, as each possesses elements of a skill set that make them an asset there. Of course, how it impacts the remainder of the lineup will directly impact the choice there. Either way, we’re likely to hear more about the options as we get closer to the spring.
Lead photo courtesy Dennis Wierzbicki—USA Today Sports