Chicago Cubs: Leadoff batter holds key to Cubs offense
The offensive capabilities for the 2017 Chicago Cubs could be legendary. With talented hitters filling the line-up, the key to success will rest solely on whoever leads off.
Fact: The Chicago Cubs lineup can score runs. This was evident in 2016 with the team scoring 808 runs, good enough for third-most in the Majors Leagues. Of those runs, 84 scored off the legs of the now-departed Dexter Fowler. That was through 125 games. In 2015, Fowler accounted for 102 runs in 156 games. That is 12.4% of all Cubs runs in the last two years.
In 2015, Fowler accounted for 102 runs in 156 games. That is 12.4% of all Cubs runs in the last two years.
Where can the Cubs generate that production with Fowler now on a rivals’ team? The days of Brett Butler, Willie McGee, and Rickey Henderson are long gone; however, the role of the lead-off batter is the same.
With those aspects in mind, to whom could Chicago Cubs tab to fill the cavernous void left by Fowler?
The current 40-man roster for the Cubs provides several options for potential lead-off batters. Speculation discussed at the water cooler rages on about the possibilities. As stated by our Adam McGinnis in an article yesterday, Cubs General Manager Jeb Hoyer believes Kyle Schwarber to be a solid lead-off option.
While his hitting ability is not in question, his lack of speed on the base path will not place stress on pitchers. It could lead to easy double play opportunities. Not what a team wants in a lead-off batter.
Another possible option is World Series MVP Ben Zobrist. For his career, Zobrist has an on-base percentage of .358 and was eighth in the National League in 2016 with a .386 OBP. For reference, Fowler was sixth with a .393 OBP, while Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo tied for ninth.
One of the strengths for the veteran Zobrist is his ability to take pitches. In 2016, Zobrist ranked 20th in the Majors seeing 4.15 pitches per plate appearance. Additionally, in his patience, he strikes out less than he walks.
The problem? He is valuable in moving runners over. There is no doubt that he is a smart player and can produce runs for the team. Will placing Zobrist in the leadoff spot limit his value?
There are three move viable options on the current roster. Jon Jay, whom the Chicago Cubs signed away from the San Diego Padres, may be called upon to fill the role, but his high strike-out to walk rate may hamper the offense. Even so, his .292 average for the last three years while batting at the top of the order is an improvement for the Cubs.
His stats while batting second is slightly better. Albert Almora proved his aggressive base running is an asset in the World Series. If he continues to mature at the plate, his speed and skill would serve the team well from the lead-off position.
The last option to lead-off for the 2017 Cubs is Javier Baez. The performance by Baez in the playoffs may well place him in the everyday lineup. He is aggressive, willing to do what it takes to get on and score. And his energy is contagious. However, his propensity to swing at balls out of the zone and strike out make his bat a liability at the top of the line-up. He is better for hitting with men on base.
Even though the Cubs signed Jay, it is only to a one-year contract. The hope is for Almora to step up and play the way the team believes he can. That said, a move to bring in another center fielder is possible.
Rumors (and they are only rumors) is that the front office has kicked the tires on trades for Charlie Blackmon from the Colorado Rockies. While nothing has come of this or other rumors, it is certain that all options are on the table. If a trade happens, the player would be an instant option for leading off.
There is one more move that is possible. The Chicago Cubs have an outfielder that is developing in the minors. After his performance in the Arizona Fall League, top prospect Ian Happ is waiting in the wings for his time to come.
A second baseman originally, Happ spent most of his games in the minors this year in the outfield. Many scouts feel that Happ has the talent to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases regularly. If that happens, the Cubs may have their lead-off answer.
The question is one the Cubs must answer correctly, but the multiple choices will make things difficult. If the team is to contend for the NL Central again, wisely selecting a lead-off batter is important.
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