For the third straight year, the Cubs enter the season without a clear leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon has shown the propensity to move guys around the lineup (and the diamond) based on matchups for each game, and that will happen again this year, particularly with the leadoff spot. That said, here are the guys you can expect to see leading off at some point during the 2019 season.
Perhaps the presumptive favorite to be the primary leadoff hitter for the Cubs this season, Zobrist is coming off a renaissance year in 2018, recording a slash line of .305/.378/.440 and a 123 wRC+. He performed well atop the order last year, too, with a .378 OBP and 121 wRC+ in 28 games. Zobrist’s switch-hitting ability and knack for getting on base makes him an attractive option for the top of the lineup, but entering his age-38 season, how well will he hold up?
After leading the Cactus League in home runs in 2018, Happ looked to be the combination of power and speed at the top of the lineup the Cubs had missed since the departure of Dexter Fowler. Happ had a tantalizing season last year, which was seen as a disappointment after coming off of a fantastic rookie performance in 2017. Among players with at least 450 plate appearances in 2018, Happ walked 15.1 percent of the time, good for 11th in all of baseball. That’s good! However, Happ struck out 36.1 percent of the time, second to only Chris Davis, a guy who had one of the worst seasons in baseball history. That’s bad. Happ’s power numbers dropped last year too, recording an ISO of .176 after posting an ISO of .261 in 2017. Even with all the strikeouts and a decrease in power, Happ was still an above average offensive player in 2018, posting a wRC+ of 106. Happ is arguably the fastest player on the roster too, which makes him a good fit to hit before Bryzzo. Maybe 2018 was a sophomore slump, or maybe that’s truly who Ian Happ is; a player who strikes out a ton, walks a fair bit, and can hit for some power. Long term, I still think Happ is the guy at the top of the lineup, but he’ll need to prove that he can put the ball in play more often in 2019.
Albert Almora Jr.
I know a lot of people on this site clamored for Almora to be the leadoff man last year, but he’s the least likely Cub to be penciled in at the top of the order. Almora saw the most playing time of his young career in 2018, accruing more plate appearances than his 2016 and 2017 season combined. In return, Almora posted a .286/.323/.378 line, worth a wRC+ of 89. Almora has a knack for putting the ball in play, but he doesn’t walk very much because of it, drawing a free pass only five-percent of the time in 2018. He doesn’t hit for power either, posting an ISO of .092 last season. Against southpaws, the argument becomes a little more convincing, but even then, Almora only posted an sOPS+ of 102 last year, meaning he was only two-percent better than league average against lefties last year. Almora belongs in the eight hole, or the nine hole if the guy below is leading off...
I can hear you yelling at your computer already. “But Alex, Kyle is a POWER HITTER, not a LEADOFF HITTER!!!” And it’s true, he is a power hitter, but he’s also an on-base machine. In 2018, Schwarber ranked 8th in baseball with a walk percentage of 15.3. That’s elite. He also struck out 27.5 percent of the time, but that was the lowest mark of his career, albeit by only 0.7%. Schwarber actually grades as a slightly above average base runner too, having posted a BsR score of 1.1 in 2018. Even more, Schwarber ranked 16th in all of baseball last year in pitches per plate appearance with 4.19 PPA, easily leading the Cubs in that category. In 2018, the Cubs scored in the first inning just 26.2 percent of the time, ranking 22nd in baseball, and last among teams with a winning record. I lost count of how many times the Cubs found themselves in an early hole last year, and having your best hitters at the forefront of the lineup helps to mitigate that.
Maddon has tried this experiment before, and as I’m sure many of you remember, it did not turn out well. In 37 starts in the leadoff spot in 2017, Schwarber batted .190/.312/.381, worth a subpar 83 wRC+. With that being said, all but two of Schwarber’s plate appearances in the leadoff spot in 2017 occurred before he was sent back to Des Moines to work on his swing. Whether placing him in the leadoff spot is what caused his offensive slump, that’s up for debate. I’ll admit, Schwarber is my vote for being the leadoff hitter this year, as his on-base prowess is exactly what needs to be in front of Bryzzo. A Schwarber, Bryant, Rizzo, Baez 1-4 is about as scary as it comes, and it keeps the L/R/L/R that Maddon covets so much. I love Schwarber batting leadoff even more if the pitcher hits 8th, which is probably what would happen if Schwarber leads off.
The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All Time. Joking aside, it won’t surprise me to see Rizzo atop the order at some point during the 2019 season. In 31 games in the leadoff spot last year, Rizzo hit .328/.428/.552, good for a wRC+ of 161. While Rizzo is undoubtedly entrenched in the middle of the lineup, if the offense is slumping at some point over the summer, expect to see Rizzo leading off.
So what do you think, who is your vote to be the leadoff hitter in 2019?
Who should be the Cubs leadoff hitter in 2019?
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Albert Almora Jr.
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