We’ve known the Chicago Cubs have a leadoff hitter problem for nearly three full years now. Will this be the offseason Theo Epstein finally does something?
I’m not sure why anyone who follows the Chicago Cubs with any kind of regularity is shocked at the team’s lack of production at the top of the order this season. Since the departure of Dexter Fowler at the conclusion of the 2016 World Series run, this club has lacked a leadoff hitter.
Shockingly enough, letting it go unaddressed for three years hasn’t somehow generated a solution to this glaring problem with the Cubs lineup. That spot in the order has been a revolving door since 2017 – and this year has only been marginally different.
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Chicago leadoff hitters this year carry a paltry .203/.283/.376 line heading into Thursday’s series opener at Miller Park. That works out to a .659 OPS – by far the worst spot in the order. We’ve seen countless players get a look there – with Jason Heyward receiving the lion’s share of reps in recent weeks.
But after putting up some of the best numbers of his career in the season’s first half, the veteran outfielder has cratered as the team’s leadoff hitter. He’s barely getting on base at a .300 clip in the second half (.301, to be exact) and put together his worst single month of the season in August.
Last month, Heyward turned in a .276 on-base percentage in 105 plate appearances. Out of the leadoff spot on the year, he’s managed an even more unsightly .252 OBP – along with a .554 OPS. Hit him literally anywhere other than first? At a bare minimum, he’s managed at least a .772 OPS.
Yet here we are, watching Joe Maddon trot him out there on a near-daily basis. Doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results? That’s insanity.
It’s eerily reminiscent of the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment that ended just as poorly. I’m not taking anything away from the former first-rounder, because what he’s been doing at the plate lately is nothing short of outstanding.
If the season were to end today, he’d have set new career-highs in OPS, slugging percentage, home runs, doubles, hits and RBI. But that’s what he’s best at – waiting for his pitch and punishing it with brutal authority. Instead, because of his oft-touted pitch recognition and plate discipline, we saw him as the table setter far too many times in recent years.
So what’s the solution? I’m not sure – but it’s clearly not plugging and playing with someone from the existing roster yet again in 2020.
Assuming veteran Ben Zobrist rides off into the sunset at the end of the year and the team finally gets past their infatuation with Addison Russell, Epstein could look to the free agent market for an answer. Someone like Howie Kendrick (career .360 OBP out of the leadoff spot) makes a lot of sense, despite his age. He not only answers the leadoff question, but could give the Cubs some pop at second base – their weakest position on the roster.
The simple truth is this. Chicago’s offense has been broken, more or less, since the 2016 campaign. Why? The top of the batting order has been inconsistent while putting up consistently horrible numbers for nearly three years now. It’s time for a change.