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Kyle Schwarber will probably lead off at times this year and people’s heads will explode

It’s really actually a pretty good idea.

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

SCOTTSDALE, ArizonaDexter Fowler was an excellent leadoff hitter for the Cubs in 2015 and 2016, so much so that the team barely needed anyone else in the role.

Fowler led off in 146 of the 162 games in 2015, and 118 of 161 in 2016 (the smaller number in 2016 was due to an injury that caused Fowler to miss 37 games).

Last year? With Fowler gone, Joe Maddon had to mix and match. Jon Jay wound up leading off in the most games in 2017, but that was just 51 times. Ben Zobrist took the leadoff spot 41 times, and Kyle Schwarber was the team’s first hitter in 36 games.

This year, Joe has tried several hitters in the leadoff role in spring training games, including Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward.

Could Schwarber get another chance at it? The Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom, whose gig is usually snark, wrote this thoughtful column explaining why he thinks Schwarber is eventually going to lead off for the Cubs again:

Maddon raised the possibility to Schwarber again leading off. At that time, Maddon said he wanted Schwarber to accept his walks, but here’s the thing: Schwarber accepted them as a leadoff hitter last year. He walked more per plate appearance in the first half than in the second. The problem was, he couldn’t hit.

But this Schwarber doesn’t look like that Schwarber, and Maddon will tell you that goes for more than just pants size.

“I think (his swing) is more under control – more hands, less arms,” Maddon said. “With that, he’s doing it easier. I thought there was more body involvement, just a more grinding approach, and it’s eased up a bit. That’s what we’re seeing, and better adjustments with two strikes.’’

Schwarber hit .190/.312/.381 (28-for-147) with seven home runs out of the leadoff spot in 2017. That’s a bad slash line, but the .312 OBP suggests that if Schwarber could bump that batting average up 40 or 50 points — not an impossible task — his OBP would rise to a level suitable for leadoff. As you know, Schwarber hit very well after his recall from Iowa last year, .255/.338/.565 (51-for-200) with 18 home runs. That OBP is still a bit low for a leadoff hitter, but this article suggests his approach has changed:

“I just want to put the barrel on the ball,” said Schwarber, who in his three at-bats against the Reds on Monday night ripped a single, lined into a double play and battled back from being down 0-2 in the count to draw a walk.

“When I do that, good things happen. It doesn’t have to be a home run; it can be a hard-hit single, double or walk. I feel things have been going well at the plate (by) being able to work with our hitting coaches (and) nailing down a few other things.”

Schwarber is hitting .385/.489/.744 (15-for-39) this spring with three doubles, a triple and three home runs, in addition to four stolen bases. As Rosenbloom points out: “Yeah, I know now it’s just spring and Arizona does funny things to baseballs and baseball evaluations,” but these numbers and Schwarber’s approach would indicate to me that he’s ready for a breakout season.

Could Schwarber’s power serve the team best lower down in the lineup? Sure, but the on-base skills and his newly svelte form providing better baserunning tell me that Joe Maddon is likely to call on Schwarber as a leadoff hitter.

Not every day. This year’s Cubs leadoff spot is likely to be a mix-and-match based on matchups. Last year, Maddon had to do that out of necessity. This year, he has the luxury of several players who could serve the team well leading off.

And Kyle Schwarber is likely to be one of them. Please don’t let your head explode when this happens.


Kyle Schwarber should lead off...

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  • 5%
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