Ask Away: Russell Batting 9, Roster Crunch, and Who Leads the Cubs in Homers?

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Ask Away: Russell Batting 9, Roster Crunch, and Who Leads the Cubs in Homers?

Chicago Cubs

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One month into this new Ask Away feature, and we’re starting to find our groove. Thanks again, to everyone who continues to send in questions, keep them coming and I’ll keep answering them week-by-week.

I suspect the backlog will start to get especially busy as Spring Training starts to amp up, so send your questions in as soon as you think of them!

If you need a reminder on how to do that, look no further (oh, and follow me):

Last week, we discussed the Cubs draft strategy going forward, prospect trades, bench players and much more. So check that one out, if you missed it!

Ask Away…

Do you think Joe Maddon will continue to bat Addison Russell 9th, given the evidence of it hurting his numbers, and perhaps his development? – Alan

The 2016 Chicago Cubs lineup is going to be one of the most difficult things to predict heading into the season. There are simultaneously no prototypical lead off hitters and several guys that would be great at leading off. There’s power throughout the lineup and two new high contact guys in Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist. Additionally, of the eight starting position players, four hit from the left side, three hit from the right side and one is a switch hitter. Lastly, other than Addison Russell’s .307 OBP and Jorge Soler’s .324 OBP, the next lowest on base percentage of those starting players is Miguel Montero (.345) –  ten points higher than the 2015 league average.

Point being: there are so many ways to construct this lineup that make sense. But, let’s figure it out by working backwards. If Maddon does hit the pitcher 8th, who will definitely not be batting ninth? I can tell you with certainty none of Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber or Jason Heyward will hit at the bottom of the order. From there, Miguel Montero and Jorge Soler feel less likely options, leaving us with Addison Russell and Ben Zobrist. Your most likely candidate, based on offensive performance alone, then, is Russell – Zobrist is more valuable higher up in the order.

But, you could make an argument for Zobrist if you had to, thanks to his high OBP (nice when the lineup turns over) and his switch-hitting abilities (nice if you’ve got a match-up reliever coming in to face the pinch hitter in the pitcher spot). In the end, Russell remains the most likely option for that spot when all of the usual starters are starting.

There’s a lot of talk about the lack of power from Jason Heyward holding down his offensive potential. As a center fielder, wouldn’t his offensive stat line be above average for the position, making him even more valuable? – Justin

In 2015, Jason Heyward slashed .293/.359/.439 with 13 HRs and a .346 wOBA. Among the 23 qualified right fielders, his batting average ranked fifth, his OBP seventh and his slugging fifteenth. He was also nineteenth in HRs and tenth in wOBA. That said, his total WAR (6.0) was second only to NL MVP Bryce Harper. The reason that’s the case, despite the (relatively) middling offensive numbers, is because he is the single best defensive right fielder in baseball. In that way, there’s a relationship between this question about his offense and the potential value lost on defense, by making the switch to center field. (Though he’s likely to be good at it.)

Surprisingly, the switch to center wouldn’t make his offensive numbers look better by comparison as much as you might expect. Heyward’s batting average (8th), OBP (7th), slugging percentage (9th), wOBA (6th) and home runs (13th) all rank much lower than your intuition might indicate. Even so, Heyward complements the team perfectly, is well above average offensively, and will be a good to very good center fielder.

What is the reality for guys on the 40-Man Roster (Dan Vogelbach, Christian Villanueva, Dallas Beeler, Eric Jokisch, Arismendy Alcantara, Matt Szczur) with no spots on the everyday roster? Jason

You’re correct in assuming that none of the six players listed are locks (or even favorites) to make the opening day roster; however, this issue might not be as pressing as you think. Reason being, all of Dan Vogelbach (3) Dallas Beeler (1), Eric Jokisch (2) and Arismendy Alcantara (1) have options remaining. I went over what this means in a previous Ask Away, but suffice it to say: those four players can be sent back and forth from the minors all season long with no consequences.

If Matt Szczur or Christian Villanueva don’t make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training, on the other hand, they will have to make it through waivers if the Cubs want to keep them in the organization. Which is why, without another outfield transaction, Szczur has a legitimate shot to win the “defensive first” backup outfield spot.

Last week, in the less serious serious half of Ask Away, we went Meta. This week, let’s go with some predictions. Ask Away…

Which Cubs do you think have the most potential to appear in the 2016 All-Star Game? Alex – Los Angeles, California

I love this question because it’s so fun to think about the Cubs matching the eight players they sent to the 2008 All-Star Game. Here’s what I had to say about it a few weeks back:

The easy top tier, for me, is Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Jason Heyward and Jake Arrieta – so I guess that’s my answer – but would it surprise anyone if Zobrist, Russell, Schwarber, Soler or Lester made the team? There are definitely other possibilities, too.

Who do you think will lead the team in HRs in 2016? Andrew – (BWA)

This is another fun question to think about, given the insane power loaded into the 2016 Cubs lineup. Rizzo, Schwarber and Bryant probably form the top tier of power and maximum playing time, so I will choose from among them.

It may not be the safest bet, but I’ll take Kyle Schwarber hitting the most home runs in 2016. He may not be the best overall offensive performer, but his swing generates so much power (… uh, like Rizzo’s and Bryant’s don’t?). Steamer, for what it’s worth, projects Rizzo (32) leading both Bryant (31) and Schwarber (25) in 2016.

[Brett: I want to offer my vote here for Bryant. Even though he’s de-lofting his swing a little bit, I still think he’s just scientifically engineered to hit home runs. Also, Michael and I are jerks for not picking the guy who has actually led the team in home runs each of the last three seasons.]

Which Cubs pitcher will end the season with the most hits? Bobby – Chicago, IL

In 2015, Jake Arrieta (83 PAs – 12 H) led all of John Lester (71 PAs – 4 H), John Lackey (70 PAs – 7 hits), Jason Hammel (70 PAs – 11 hits), Kyle Hendricks (64 PAs – 3 H) and Travis Wood (32 PAs – 3 H) in plate appearances and hits. Moreover, Arrieta (29.7%) had a larger hard hit percentage than Lester (18.4%), Lackey (23.8%), Hammel (17.6%), Hendricks (7.7%) and Wood (21.4%)

Hammel may actually be the best hitter among the group, but it’s likely that Arrieta will receive far more plate appearances throughout the season. Combined with the batted ball data, I’ll take Arrieta.

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami