Even if the Chicago Cubs trade Jorge Soler to the Kansas City Royals, a reunion with Dexter Fowler remains unlikely.
On defense, his glove will be replaced by a combination of Albert Almora and Jon Jay in center field, but, at the plate, neither of those players are capable of replicating his skills as a leadoff hitter (at least right now (few are)).
So the Cubs will have to look elsewhere in their lineup for someone to plop atop their otherwise terrifying barrage of bats.
Last season, before Fowler returned to the Cubs, the prevailing wisdom was that one of Ben Zobrist or Jason Heyward would take the honor of leading off for Chicago. Although Heyward has bought a house in Arizona so that he can work on his swing with the Cubs hitting coaches throughout the winter, he can’t yet be relied upon for a quick return to form.
Zobrist, however, remains an option; as does …
Maddon says Zobrist and Schwarber are candidates to lead off in place of Fowler
— Jesse Rogers (@ESPNChiCubs) December 6, 2016
Yes, in addition to Ben Zobrist, according to Joe Maddon, Kyle Schwarber is being considered as a candidate to lead off for the Chicago Cubs in 2017.
And I love it.
If you’re a little confused about Schwarber’s ability to lead off, let me remind you that being a lead-off hitter doesn’t mean what it used to. Just like the high average, low power, slap hitters have vacated the second spot in the order, so have the speedster (only) center field types vacated the top of the order. Getting on base is the primary directive, and Kyle Schwarber can do that as well as anyone.
In his rookie season (2015), for example, Schwarber carried a .355 OBP, despite a .246 batting average, because he walked over 13.0% of the time. That year (which I’m using, because he doesn’t have any meaningful statistics from 2016), Schwarber also had one of the better O-swing rates (30.2%) for players under 25, and, considering what he did in the World Series, it doesn’t look like any of those skills have eroded in the wake of the knee injury that cost him most of the 2016 season.
In fact, I’d just like to point out – once again – that while Schwarber hit an impressive .412/.500/.471 in the World Series, he also made a lot of good outs (against really good pitchers), too. In Game 1, for just one example, Schwarber worked a full count against Corey Kluber in the second inning, before striking out in six pitches. After later doubling (off Kluber) and walking (against a fresh and left-handed Andrew Miller), he struck out against Miller, but worked a long count once again. I could go on with his out from the rest of the series, too, but I think the point is simple enough: productive lead-off hitters aren’t productive only when they’re hitting. Their ability to work deep counts and see a lot of pitches is just as important.
In 2016, Dexter Fowler finished second best in baseball with 4.41 pitches seen per plate appearance. The year prior (2015), he finished 16th overall with 4.09 pitches seen per plate appearance. In that same year, Kyle Schwarber finished fourth overall with 4.26 pitches seen per plate appearance (just one spot behind Joey Votto!). In short, he has the batting eye, the patience, and the offensive potential to be a fantastic leadoff hitter, and I would be excited to see it happen.*
And if you’re worried about consistency, there’s one more thing to note: if Soler really is on the move, as is expected, Schwarber will have even less competition for plate appearances. That means that he’ll be even more of a fixture atop the Cubs’ lineup, without too many days off.
I can just imagine opposing starters staring at a lineup led off by Kyle Schwarber (L), Kris Bryant (R), Anthony Rizzo (L), and Ben Zobrist (S) wondering how the hell they’re gonna get out of the first inning using fewer than 20 pitches. (And then looking at the rest of the lineup, wondering how he still, somehow, has to face Addison Russell, Willson Contreras, and/or Javy Baez before getting to the “easy part” of the lineup: Albert Almora/Jon Jay, Jason Heyward, and the pitcher spot). Fun times.
Whether it is ultimately Schwarber or Zobrist (or someone else) batting leadoff for the Cubs in 2017, the lineup should remain very strong.
*(Brett here: an important consideration in all of this is the fact that the Cubs clearly don’t have a traditional, Fowler-like obvious fit for the leadoff spot. Were we discussing a roster that included a couple guys like that, surely our “take” on Schwarber as a leadoff hitter would be fundamentally different, as you’d not only want those guys at the top, but you’d also assuredly want Schwarber’s thunder in the middle of the lineup. Even for these Cubs, you’d still love to have Schwarber there in the middle somewhere producing runs, but it’s hard to argue that the Cubs are better off giving significantly more at bats to, for example, Jason Heyward at the top of the order just so you can have Schwarber in a run-producing spot. There is an awkwardness to Schwarber in the leadoff spot, but, given the rest of the expected lineup, it makes sense.)