Joe Maddon on the Leadoff Decisions, Both for August and the Rest of the Season

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Joe Maddon on the Leadoff Decisions, Both for August and the Rest of the Season

Chicago Cubs

For whatever reason, the Chicago Cubs leadoff question boiled over yesterday, becoming something of a trending topic among writers in Chicago. From outside the beat, our friends at Cubs Insider jumped on it early, and I followed up with something later in the day. Fortunately for all of us who crave the information, that wasn’t the end of the story.

Gordon Wittenmyer (Sun-Times) and Jordan Bastian ( discussed the topic with Joe Maddon, who illuminated his thought process both in the present and future. Looking backwards, there have been several factors keeping Jason Heyward atop Maddon’s lineup this month, even as his production has slipped markedly (I’m paraphrasing):

  1. The absence of Willson Contreras, thinning out the lineup (making it harder to move one of the other sluggers up top).
  2. Anthony Rizzo’s recent absence making #1 even tougher (and eliminating another leadoff option).
  3. Nicholas Castellanos being too good to mess with.
  4. The absence of Ben Zobrist since May.
  5. Albert Almora Jr. in Triple-A Iowa.

“I’m not as worried about this as some other people may be worried,” Maddon said. “We have different candidates. We don’t have the prototypical guy. I will probably maneuver it a little bit more [after rosters expand], but for right now, I’m not running away from Jason.”

Well, okay. Some of those explanations are understandable – particularly not wanting to mess with Nick Castellanos. Nobody should change a thing when it comes to him right now. But … Albert Almora Jr. simply cannot be considered one of the main options at leadoff, because he’s almost certainly a worse option than Heyward has been (even at his worst). And yet, Maddon answered softly when that was brought up later on: “When Albert comes back, if he’s swinging better against lefties, that might be an opportunity also.”

That may sound judicious, but do you really have any doubt that as soon as (1) Almora is back, a (2) lefty is on the mound, and (3) Ben Zobrist isn’t otherwise leading off, that Almora won’t be at the top of the Cubs lineup? Of course he will. He shouldn’t. But he will.

I don’t know what worked for him in the past – or what might very well work for him in the future – but this season, Almora is slashing just .214/.250/.282 against left-handed pitching. It’s just not working and I really can’t believe we aren’t past that yet. Hopefully, Maddon was just being polite.

Which brings me to Zobrist: “The answer would be yes, a little bit of Zo,” Maddon said when asked if the veteran will be an option at leadoff. But, I don’t know, man. I love Ben Zobrist and I absolutely expect to see him at the top of the lineup on Sunday (because there’s no way Maddon could help himself (and I don’t really blame him)), but will he really be a much better option? We’re talking about a 38-year-old who carried a 67 wRC+ into May, before taking three months off from baseball. Chip on his shoulder? Something to prove? Wants to retire strong? Sure, maybe. But it’s hard to expect too much right away.

And Joe Maddon is aware of the other problem: “When Zo comes back I anticipate giving him a couple shots up there,” manager Joe Maddon said, “but he’s not going to play every day, either. So that’s part of the concern.”

As for the other options Maddon discussed, Anthony Rizzo may make sense, but I doubt it’ll happen down the stretch. For the most part, it seems the Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time only ever gets to lead off when there’s a slump to bust (either individually or as a team). More specifically, I think Maddon likes to keep both halves of Bryzzo together, without batting Bryant second, which he reportedly doesn’t like. No arguments from me on this one.

As for Nick Castellanos … do not touch Nick Castellanos.

Which brings us to today’s leadoff hitter: Ian Happ.

I’ve been pushing to try Happ out at the top of the lineup, because he offers speed, switch-hitting, on-base skills, and a high walk-rate. He also plays all three outfield spots as well as second base, which COULD help keep him in the lineup more consistently (compared to the concerns over Zobrist, for example). But even I, the Secretary General of the Ian Happ Fan Club, know that it’s not a no-brainer. Happ was down in Triple-A Iowa for a reason and although he’s actually been pretty good since returning, he’s not the obvious every-day solution just yet.

I’m fairly certain that he’s leading off today primarily because Chase Anderson’s extreme reverse splits were a nightmare matchup for Heyward at leadoff and Maddon had nobody else. Hopefully, it works out for Happ, but I think this was out of necessity more than anything else.

So where does that leave us? Honestly, not much further from where we began.

Starting on September 1st and through the end of the year, I can pretty much guarantee that each of Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr., and maybe Ian Happ, will see time atop the lineup. You might see a surprise slugger there later in the month, once Willson Contreras returns, but until then it’ll be mix and match. And as long as we don’t see too much of Almora or Tony Kemp leading off in front of Bryant, Rizzo, Baez, etc., I’ll try not to question Maddon’s decisions too much. There’s just not a perfect answer right now.

Author: Michael Cerami

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