Who Will Lead Off for the Cubs in 2017?
For the last two years, the Cubs have had the luxury of employing one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball. He didn’t have blazing speed, but he had power upside, saw pitches, and got on base consistently. His name, of course, is Dexter Fowler. But he has crossed over to the dark side.
With Fowler now playing for the rival St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubs have a void at the top of their lineup. There are a couple options for how to replace Fowler in the lineup, and manager Joe Maddon will likely use a combination of the ideas laid out here to fill up his lineup card next season.
The Case for Ben Zobrist
In no way is Zobrist a prototypical leadoff hitter. He doesn’t have particularly good speed; that would be the big knock on him. However, he does have other important features of a leadoff man: he sees pitches and he gets on base at a very high clip. Last season in the Cubby Blue, he reached base in 38.6 percent of his plate appearances.
Zobrist’ switch hitting ability is also an advantage. Fowler showed that could be an asset at the leadoff spot. Being able to hit for power gives Zobrist some upside as a leadoff hitter as well. A little pop at the top of the lineup never hurt anyone.
Based on his ability to see pitches and get on base, Zobrist should be leading off relatively consistently for the Cubs in 2017.
The Case for Jon Jay
One of the more obvious choices to lead off is Jay, recently signed to a one-year, $8 million deal. He is more of your typical leadoff hitter. He is a career .287 hitter and hit .291 in 90 games in San Diego a season ago. He has stolen as many as 19 bases in a season in his career, but he has combined for just two over the last two seasons.
He’s getting older, so his speed is diminishing, but it’s still exists and he hits for a high average. That will earn him leadoff duties quite a bit. Something else helping him is that he has hit from the leadoff or No. 2 spot in the lineup in the majority of his major-league plate appearances. That experience should earn him the nod from Maddon on occasion.
When Jay and Zobrist are both in the lineup, batting Jay leadoff also makes sense, because Zobrist can be slotted in the No. 2 or 5 spot in the order, making the lineup much deeper. With Albert Almora Jr. set to share some time in centerfield, they’re not always going to be in the lineup at the same time, though.
- CF Jay
- 3B Kris Bryant
- 1B Anthony Rizzo
- LF Kyle Schwarber
- RF Zobrist
- 2B Javier Baez
- C Willson Contreras
- SS Addison Russell
This, of course, excludes Jason Heyward and would be the case when Zobrist replaces him in right field instead of Schwarber in left field. With Baez seemingly taking over the starting second base job, it appears Zobrist will fill more of the utility role he’s grown used to playing in his career.
The Case for Anyone Else
Nobody else really fills the mold of a leadoff man on the Cubs roster. Russell strikes out too much and his power upside is too much to leave in that spot. Contreras is similar; he strikes out quite a bit and has pop in his bat.
Baez showed more plate discipline during the regular season, but chased consistently in the playoffs. If he could continue to cut down on his strikeouts and be a little more patient, he would be a decent leadoff option based on his speed and excellent base running. Don’t expect that to happen until Maddon sees that in action during the season, though.
If Maddon wanted to get him the greatest number of possible at bats, he could potentially bat Bryant leadoff occasionally as well, but that situation would be rare. Wasting his opportunity to hit with guys on base in the first inning would be foolish.
Without Fowler, the Cubs’ leadoff situation is undoubtedly worse. However, with a combination of Zobrist and Jay in the top spot in the lineup, the team should be able to cover up for his absence without seeing a drastic drop off.