Chicago Cubs: Who will Joe Maddon use as the lead-off hitter this season?


The Chicago Cubs are running out of leadoff options with Denard Span reportedly signing a contract with the San Francisco Giants.

I had hoped the Cubs would give Span a shot. He’s a great contact hitter who reaches base at a respectable rate (.345 OBP in 2015). He has enough speed to make pitchers nervous.

And while his defensive numbers were down for 2015, he has generally been a plus defender in center field. But now he’s not an option.

So what options are left for the Cubs to find a leadoff hitter?

Reuniting with Dexter Fowler is one possibility. MLB Trade Rumors had most recently linked him with the Giants and Kansas City Royals. But with the Giants signing Span and the Royals re-signing Alex Gordon, Fowler is back to the open market… and maybe falling back into the Cubs lap.

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He’s pretty comparable to Span, reaching base at a .346 clip and adding good speed with slightly below range numbers in center. He doesn’t quite have the same rate of contact, however, as he struck out 154 times last year.

What could perhaps keep the Cubs from re-signing Fowler is his preference for a multi-year contract. The Cubs are aware that Albert Almora is not yet ready of the Major Leagues, but will be soon.

They are likely unwilling to commit long-term to another player with another long-term option already in the organization. So if Fowler does re-sign with the Cubs, it will be because he couldn’t get a multi-year deal anywhere else.

He’s good enough to get signed for several years. Which makes him a not-so-great fit for the Cubs. So let’s check some other options for lead-off hitters…

In all practicality, signing a free agent center fielder causes a log jam in the Cubs outfield. Essentially, an addition from outside means Jorge Soler is left without a spot in the line-up since currently projected center fielder Jason Heyward would move to right field.

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The Cubs did not sign Heyward just so they could sit Soler. So let’s assume the Cubs stand pat with their current roster and instead take a look at who the Cubs currently have that makes the most sense in the leadoff spot.

Typically, teams look for a guy who gets on base and can disrupt pitchers with his speed. Of the Cubs current projected starters, only Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward posted double-digit steals last year (17, 13 and 23, respectively).

They are also three of the Cubs’ top on-base guys, as Rizzo posted a .387 OBP, Bryant a .369, and Heyward a .359 (while playing with the Cardinals).

There is no way that manager Joe Maddon would sacrifice either of his top two power hitters by putting them in the leadoff spot. So we’re going to figure that Bryant and Rizzo should not be considered leadoff candidates.

That leaves Heyward as the logical guy. He has the right kind of numbers and he has some experience in the number one slot: he was the Braves primary leadoff hitter in 2014.

There is another newcomer candidate, however. When new Cub and projected second baseman Ben Zobrist last played under Joe Maddon during the 2014 season with the Tampa Bay Rays, he spent 47 games hitting in the one slot.

The Cubs did not sign Heyward just so they could sit Soler

Now Zobrist is not considered a big threat to steal a base (he stole two bases in five attempts last year), but he does have a talent for getting on base: his career OBP is .355.

What possibly makes up for Zobrist’s lack of speed is his ability to work the pitcher. In 2015, Zobrist averaged 4.03 pitches per plate appearance. The more pitches Zobrist saw, the more he gave the hitters behind him a chance to see what they were up against and expose a pitcher’s game plan.

Now add to this that Zobrist is a switch-hitter and Heyward hits exclusively left-handed. We can assume that Maddon will continue his tendency from the end of last season of hitting Bryant in the three-spot and Rizzo in the clean-up spot.

In order to bring lefty/righty parity, he will want the left-handed hitting Heyward in front of the right-handed Bryant, freeing up the switch-hitting Zobrist to hit lead off.

So, the Cubs have options at the lead-off position–and they’re good options. Both Zobrist and Heyward have the potential to get on base plenty before the big bashers like Bryant and Rizzo come to the plate.

Whichever one of these guys hits lead off, expect them to score well over 100 runs.