Are the Chicago Cubs still in need of a leadoff hitter? Depends on how you choose to look at the situation.
The Chicago Cubs enter the 2019 spring with more questions since winning the World Series in 2016, but one that’s remained consistent since Dexter Fowler‘s departure that following winter.
Do the Cubs need a consistent leadoff hitter? You can look at this in one or two ways. One of the Cubs keys to success offensively in 2016 was Fowler’s ability to get the offense rolling on a consistent basis. After all, he did post career highs in OBP (.393) and fWAR (4.6) that year.
The other way is looking at how the Cubs construct their lineup daily. It was not crazy seeing Anthony Rizzo at the top of their lineup in 2018. Joe Maddon has always been the unconventional type of manager.
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Since Fowler’s moved on, the Cubs have struggled to find his kind of production in the leadoff role. You can argue Rizzo has been the Cubs best player from the top of the lineup the last two seasons. In 2017, the Cubs tried (and failed) with Kyle Schwarber and once that project concluded, it was a combination of Ben Zobrist, Jon Jay and Albert Almora at the top of the lineup depending on matchups the rest of the season.
After Jay’s departure, Ian Happ got the call to start the 2018 season. Happ started the season slow and couldn’t find enough playing time to end his early season slump. By season’s end, you just didn’t know who would be at the top of the lineup, but most days it was Zobrist, Almora or Rizzo.
Not one could hold the spot long-term, except for Rizzo, but the Cubs would prefer to bat him in the middle of the lineup.
The Cubs enter this spring with the same problem. With plenty of free agents still on the market, there’s a chance the Cubs add another utility player, perhaps? It’s not likely but it’s not out of the question either. I’m willing to bet if they did add another position player, he won’t be leading off for the Cubs on Opening Day in Texas.
I’m not so sure the Cubs need to go pursue a free agent for this role specifically, but they need to start someone in this role on a more consistent basis. Almora and Happ could be the top options this spring to try out for this position. The Cubs look at Happ to have bounce-back potential and have a much better season in 2019. The key to that will be more consistent playing time, which could happen if he gets more opportunities at second base and if he can cut down on his strikeouts.
In 2018, Happ finished with an abysmal 36.1 percent strikeout rate. However, he did walk 15.2 percent of his plate appearances. There is potential there. Almora had a strong first half of 2018 but really struggled down the stretch, like most of the Cubs offense. As a free swinger, I’m not sure he’ll be able to work longer at-bats to lead to more walks, the test has been proven after a .338 OBP in 2017 and .323 OBP in 2018. He only strikes out at a 17.3 percent clip, however. He will likely get some opportunities because his defense has proven to be elite.
Some others the Cubs may give a chance to are Schwarber, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. Schwarber has improved since returning from Triple-A Iowa in 2017 and has always shown great ability at getting on base. You can say the same about Bryant, who is looking to get back to playing at an MVP caliber level after an injury-plagued 2018 campaign. Going into last season it was discussed and Bryant played a few games in the role when he was healthy.
As for Baez, he’s similar to Almora in terms of willingness to take his walks but has much more threat from a power standpoint (.554 slugging percentage in 2018). While he still swings at plenty of pitches off the plate, Baez showed much more poise in 2018 by using all parts of the field (26.1 percent opposite field percentage in 2018) on his way to an MVP caliber season.
The three can make the case for the opportunity, but like Rizzo, I think the Cubs would rather see them do damage in the middle of their lineup.
The spring is just beginning, so, we’ll continue to monitor what the Cubs try to do as spring training games begin to play out. No one from outside the organization is coming to save the day though.