As we approach the start of another baseball season, I find myself wondering about the state of the Cubs leadoff hitter position for yet another year. I hate to sound like a broken record, but in all honesty the Cubs have not had a textbook leadoff man since the days of Juan Pierre; and that was back in 2006. It would have been nice to see import Kosuke Fukudome mold into that role, but he ended up being a bust all around, not just in the top spot of the line up.
Theo Epstein’s signing of David DeJesus last off season was a bit of a band aid to cover the void at number one in the order. But the left handed outfielder’s drastic RHP/LHP splits (.289/.149 average and .365/.289 OBP) do not make him quite an ideal candidate. As a result, even though he spent a bulk of his games as the leadoff man, he only started in 114 games with that responsibility. Epstein and Company has chosen not to address the top of the order need this off season, which is one indication for me that their public statements to compete in 2013 is more positive talk than honest belief.
There are no reasonable in house candidates other than DeJesus for 2013. In his defense, an overall .350 OBP is actually decent production. A guy who regularly makes contact, like a Darwin Barney, might seem like an option. However, Barney’s ability to put the ball in play is negated by his low career OBP of .263. Roster centerpiece Starlin Castro has spent some time in the top slot in his young career and has looked good doing so. But even his OBP falls short of DeJesus’ and the shortstop showed a glimpse of a power stroke that is still developing, with a career high 14 home runs last season, which has him pegged for a spot in the middle of the order. The 100 whiffs are also not what you want to see out of your leadoff hitter.
The lack of solutions for 2013 already has me looking ahead to 2014. If the Cubs are in a position to honestly contend in 2014, the front office could go the free agent route to fill this void. One name that has been mentioned in passing is Robinson Cano. The second baseman has a career average of .308 and .379 OBP, but his downside like Castro is strikeouts, having registered 96 in each of the last two seasons.
The in house hope lies on prospect Matt Szczur. The young outfielder is getting his first taste of Major League camp this Spring and has held a respectable average and OBP during his three seasons in the minors so far. That includes the dip in production he saw after being promoted to Double A Tennessee. Jumps from one level of minor league ball to another are all about adjustments, and Szczur will have the opportunity to prove that he can adapt this season with the Smokies.
A break out season in Tennessee could put Szczur on pace to compete for the Major League job in 2014. That is a legitimate goal for Szczur, as the 2014 outfield picture would be void of DeJesus (regardless of whether he is traded by the July 2013 deadline or leaves as a free agent) and possibly even Alfonso Soriano. Assuming he makes the cut, that would allow the outfielder to get a year of MLB ball under his belt before the Cubs make their projected push for a World Series title in 2015 (yes, I strongly believe that 2015 will be the year).
We all have been hoping for the revolving door at leadoff to get locked down for a while now. We do not figure to get our wish this season, but in rhythm with the Cubs long term plans, we should get our wish one way or another starting in 2014. And if you are crazy enough to even wonder, yes there is a reason why I did not include Soriano’s name and leadoff in the same sentence. Until now.