In the spirit of discussion, Matt Snyder (CBS) wrote that the Cubs need to find a leadoff hitter for 2018, and offered an interesting, but surprising solution to the problem: Kris Bryant.
You should definitely take a look at his article, because, while I don’t necessarily agree with him, he makes a lot of good points.
For example, Snyder rightfully points out that, at present, the Cubs don’t really have a good option to lead off every game and that’s not likely to change anytime soon (because the Cubs are probably not going to add any starting position players to the fold). In that way, this leadoff conversation looks a whole lot like it did last year when the Cubs went the unconventional route and turned to Kyle Schwarber.
For this year, running down the list, you can quickly dismiss Javy Baez, Addison Russell, and Albert Almora as regular options, as none of them really have the plate discipline, walk rates, or general on-base skills you’d like to see at the top of the order.
After them, unfortunately, you probably can’t count on Jason Heyward or Ben Zobrist to be productive enough to warrant an every day spot at the top. Though, I will add that, before he came to Chicago, Heyward would’ve been pretty ideal up there. Maybe with some luck – and after at least a month of proving it – Heyward can turn into that guy, but that’s a dream scenario conversation for another day.
So who, among the regulars/semi-regulars, are we left with? Willson Contreras, Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, and Kris Bryant.
According to Snyder, Rizzo and Contreras’ thumping bats need to stay in the middle of the order, Schwarber shouldn’t be given another chance at the top, and Ian Happ strikes out too much to hold down the job. And then there’s Bryant.
Making the case for Bryant at the top, Snyder touts his on-base skills, annually decreasing strikeout rate, his general flexibility, speed on the base paths, and, ultimately, fit/feel of the rest of the lineup with him at the top*:
- Kris Bryant, 3B(R)
- Anthony Rizzo, 1B (L)
- Willson Contreras, C (R)
- Kyle Schwarber, LF (L)
- Addison Russell, SS(R)
- Albert Almora, CF (R)
- Javy Baez, 2B (R)
- Jason Heyward, RF (L)
*Snyder recognizes that each of Ben Zobrist and Ian Happ will work in regularly, too, but given that both are switch hitters who can play in the infield and outfield, nothing should really change in the rest of the “regular” order.
So, does that make some sense? Well, actually, yeah, it does – at least as much sense as Schwarber did for the job last year (and Joe Maddon hasn’t ruled out a return). Bryant does get on base, rarely strikes out, is fast, and, as the Cubs’ best hitter, is someone you’d want to get as many at-bats as possible throughout the course of the regular season … but I’m still not seeing it.
There’s no doubt that I’d like Bryant up near the top of the batting order, but the number two spot should work just fine (especially because – to a lesser, but still real extent – Bryant rarely hits grounders and almost never hits into double plays).
And if our options were limited to just the ten names above, I’d rather see Kyle Schwarber, Ian Happ, or even Anthony Rizzo again (for many of the same reasons as Bryant) instead. All three of Schwarber, Happ, and Rizzo take a ton of walks and see plenty of pitches, and I know/understand the arguments against each one. But if there were someone without any marks against them, this really wouldn’t be a difficult conversation, would it?
On Schwarber, in particular, I’m sure you’ll have plenty of thoughts, but it’s hard to argue against his fit at the top. If you lead off with him, Bryant (R), Rizzo (L) and Contreras (R) fall perfectly into place in their usual spots. But, if you put someone else up there, one of those four – arguably the Cubs’ four best hitters – will fall down to fifth, and that would result in a lot of missed plate appearances by the end of the season.
Happ, in my opinion, could be a solid leadoff hitter, as I generally expect him to cut down on the strikeouts in his second Major League season, but given his expected versatility and the existence of Almora and Baez, I’m just not sure how consistently he’ll actually be in the lineup. At which point, would he even be “the” leadoff hitter? On the days when he doesn’t start, who gets the call?
As for Rizzo, well, Rizzo checks almost every box Bryant does. He may be slower and a less effective base runner, but he definitely strikes out less and would be swell as the guy with the most PAs by the end of the year. And, of course, Rizzo did lead off for a stretch last season (History’s Greatest Leadoff Hitter), which leads me to believe that Maddon likely agrees with the plausibility of Rizzo leading off.
Ultimately, given the way things are now, I’m guessing we may see another season of mixing and matching depending on the opposing pitcher. For example, when a lefty is pitching, Albert Almora makes perfect sense as a leadoff guy playing center field, and even Ben Zobrist could work, depending on how well he’s hitting. When a righty is on the mound, Schwarber or Happ could be up there. And, like I said, in the oh-please-God-just-let-this-happen scenario where Jason Heyward becomes the guy he was for six years before the Cubs, he could be up there on most days (career 10.4 BB%).
So, to answer Snyder’s question: Yes, Bryant could make sense as a leadoff hitter and probably would succeed, but no, I just don’t want him to be that guy. Optimizing as many plate appearances as possible with runners on base should be the priority and I think batting second is probably the perfect balance for Bryant.