Posted on February 24, 2017 by Bryan Zarpentine
With the departure of Dexter Fowler to the St. Louis Cardinals, the biggest hole the world champion Chicago Cubs have to fill in 2017 is in the leadoff spot. There are a number of candidates for the position, but Cubs manager Joe Maddon appears to be leaning towards using Kyle Schwarber, who is less than a year removed from a devastating knee injury.
Schwarber is far from the prototypical leadoff hitter, as he offers little in terms of speed. However, what Schwarber does bring to the table is the ability to get on base. As a rookie in 2015, he posted a .355 on-base percentage. During his two seasons in the minors, Schwarber posted an on-base percentage of .429, an astounding number, even in the minors. That ability to reach first base has Maddon thinking Schwarber could be the answer to the opening in the leadoff spot.
“Schwarber is the frontrunner,” Maddon said Thursday. “You could always consider (Ben) Zobrist if you wanted to. You could talk about Jon Jay. I’d say they’re the leaders in the clubhouse right now. But primarily I like the idea of ‘Schwarbs.'”
Maddon says he’s considering the idea of hitting the starting pitcher in the 8th spot, leaving the 9th spot for the center field platoon of rookie Albert Almora Jr. and the light-hitting Jon Jay. In 2015, Maddon used Addison Russell in the 9th spot to help get him acclimated to playing in the big leagues every day. It could make sense for him to do the same with Almora this season, which could make it easier for Schwarber to move into the leadoff spot.
“Theoretically, it would be perfect if it went Almora or Jon to Schwarber to (Kris Bryant),” Maddon mused. “That’s kind of nice. The only concern I have there is who’s hitting seventh? We have a nice lineup, so the seven-hole hitter would then lose the benefit of having the pitcher hit eighth. It has nothing to do with the eight hole and hitting sooner. My concern is who’s hitting seventh, and what that’s going to do to that guy”.
Maddon recognizes there may be drawbacks to hitting Schwarber at the top of the order. But one possible advantage is that teams would have to pitch to Schwarber with Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Zobrist in the spots right behind him.
“There’s pause involved there,” Maddon explained. “If you don’t want to pitch to (Schwarber), the guys coming up behind are pretty interesting. It’s formidable so it’s uncomfortable from the other side.”
The caveat to the plan of hitting Schwarber in the leadoff spot is figuring out how many games he’ll play this season and how often he’ll be rested to protect his knee a year removed form surgery. Schwarber and Zobrist figure to share time in left field, while Zobrist also shares time at second base with Javier Baez. Granted, Zobrist is capable of filling in at almost any position, but having only two positions for the trio of Zobrist, Schwarber, and Baez could be a tricky tight walk for Maddon to walk.
“He’s everyday, but you have to do that with some kind of foresight,” Maddon said of Schwarber. “You don’t want to beat him up and have that knee bark on him. You give him his day off probably against a tough left-hander you just don’t want him to see. And then you just do something differently. But otherwise you’ll see him up there.”
Obviously, Maddon reserves the right to change his mind at any point. But it certainly seems like he’s leaning towards a lineup in which Schwarber is leading off and the pitcher is batting in the 8th spot. How such a lineup will fare over the course of a full season remains to be seen, but Maddon appears eager to find out.