As the Chicago Cubs begin their preparations in earnest for their World Series championship defense, we’re taking a look at some of the biggest storylines that fans will need to keep an eye on during spring training.
Since we’re getting things started, it makes sense to kick things off by examining what the team will do with the lead-off spot in their lineup now that Dexter Fowler has moved on to the redder pastures of the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield.
As of right now, there doesn’t seem to be a traditional player to fill the role, as the Cubs lack an on-base machine that doesn’t strike out a lot and can steal bases once he does reach base.
Since that’s the case, Joe Maddon is leaning toward an unconventional approach, and that will begin with slugging outfielder Kyle Schwarber. Schwarber, who tore his ACL last April and made a miraculous return in time for the World Series, doesn’t even have a half season’s worth of regular season plate appearances under his belt yet, and yet he’s being looked at as a very serious contender for the lead-off spot in the order.
Despite his prodigious power, Schwarber’s inclusion in the top spot in the order actually makes sense on several levels. For one thing, Maddon has already shown a willingness to bat power bats near the top of the lineup in order to get them more at-bats, as he’s done by batting Kris Bryant second and Anthony Rizzo third over the last year.
In addition, Schwarber actually has pretty good plate discipline, as he drew 36 walks in just 273 plate appearances during his rookie season with the Cubs.
By putting Schwarber at the top of the order, Maddon will stack the top of the order with power bats, and he will give guys like Bryant plenty of chances to drive in runs just like he did when Fowler was manning the lead-off spot.
If the Schwarber experiment doesn’t work out, there are several other options that Maddon could utilize. The most likely one of the bunch would be to have Ben Zobrist hit lead-off, even though Maddon likes having him in the middle of the order because of his patience at the plate and his ability to put the ball in play frequently.
Other contenders could include Jason Heyward, assuming he can get things sorted out after an offseason of working on his swing, and Addison Russell, who showed some great progress at the plate in his sophomore season.
Whatever direction the Cubs end up going with the lead-off hitter spot, expect to see some experimentation with the lineup this spring, and don’t be surprised if the Cubs move back to using the pitcher in the eighth spot in the lineup. By doing that, it would give Schwarber opportunities to hit with men on base more often, an absolute must for someone with his power.