Since Dexter Fowler’s two-year stint with the Chicago Cubs drew to a close after the 2016 season, the team has employed a plug-and-play approach when it comes to the leadoff spot, to limited success.
We’ve seen everyone from Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo and Willson Contreras set the table at different points – although now only Contreras remains, and his being on the Opening Day roster is far from a certainty at this point. That means third-year manager David Ross will once again have to spend a likely abbreviated spring training figuring out who to pencil in atop the batting order this season.
As the roster currently stands, there are a handful of potential fits for the role. Outfielder Ian Happ has gotten a look there several times in his career, but really struggled there in 2021, slashing a disappointing .192/.337/.288 in a 90 plate appearance sample size. In his career, he’s batted .226/.330/.436.
Given his struggles for much of last year, I can’t say he’s the guy I’m putting atop the order to set the table – at least not right out of the gates. Letting Happ settle in as a run producer, something he said he enjoyed following the team’s sell-off last July, seems like a more prudent move when it comes to the former first-rounder.
We’re anticipating a new-look offense this year; one that’s, hopefully, built around a more contact-based approach. Two of the best contact bats in the Cubs lineup are middle infielders Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal. It stands to reason that both will have a chance to seize the leadoff spot during Cactus League action this spring.
Chicago Cubs: Nick Madrigal, Nico Hoerner offer similar offensive profiles
Both guys are coming off injury-plagued 2021 campaigns and are looking to get back on track. Hoerner has all of 13 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot in his young career and has struggled when leading off innings, evidenced by a .585 OPS. The thinking in giving him a look is based in his ability to punish fastballs (he hit .379 against them last year) and his well above-average speed.
Madrigal, meanwhile, will set foot on the diamond for the first time as a Cub in 2022. He, like Hoerner, has very limited experience out of the leadoff spot, but has excelled in those 31 plate appearances, slashing .370/.419/.481. He’s also performed well against fastballs, so anyone looking to get a pitch or two over to start a game could end up paying a price.
With the first talks between MLB and the MLBPA going nowhere, it seems likely we could be looking at some sort of abbreviated spring training schedule this year. That means less time for teams to make moves, sort out the pecking order of guys heading into 2022 and figure out a lineup. For Ross, identifying a leadoff hitter should be at the top of the list in Arizona.