As we sit nearly five weeks out from pitchers and catchers reporting, the hot stove could not be any colder. And that of course means envisioning lineup options for 2018. Entering the offseason, many fans believed acquiring a true leadoff hitter was one of the Cubs’ biggest priorities. In reality, it wasn’t and still isn’t today. Offense was not a problem last season, as the Cubs scored the MLB’s fourth most runs (822) without a consistent table-setter.
However, many fans — and even Joe Maddon himself — may find solace in having that guy to plug in at the top of the order.
When examining the current roster, there doesn’t seem to be any one player that stands out to fill this void. Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant, the team’s best sluggers and overall hitters, are best suited to bat in the heart of the order with more opportunities to drive in runs. Players like Javy Baez, Ian Happ, and Kyle Schwarber carry heightened whiff rates, while Addison Russell and Jason Heyward struggle to get on base nearly enough to be considered for a leadoff role.
This leaves two other players to legitimately consider for leading off: Willson Contreras and Ben Zobrist.
According to Fangraphs, Zobrist was the Cubs’ most productive leadoff hitter in 2017, though the numbers were far from astounding. He slashed .253/.330/.438 with an above-average 10.4 percent walk rate in 182 plate appearances. That .330 OBP was good for approximately 40th among leadoff hitters (min. 50 plate appearances), which isn’t all that great when you consider that there are only 30 teams. Zobrist’s lingering wrist injury takes a good deal of blame for those numbers, but natural regression with age is equally likely for the 37-year-old.
What’s more, Zobrist is unlikely to get everyday playing time in 2018 with the emergence of Happ and the presence of Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. Barring some kind of career revival, various forces are conspiring to reduce or eliminate the looks Zobrist gets leading off this upcoming season.
And then there was one. Contreras represents one of the more unconventional solutions to the leadoff dilemma. But as we have seen firsthand, that is Maddon’s style down to the bone.
While Contreras doesn’t necessarily possess elite speed, we have seen a dramatic shift away from this trait as a prerequisite for a No. 1 hitter. More importantly, Contreras is one of the team’s best all-around hitters, displaying a patient approach at the plate to go with tremendous power potential. Some would argue that this is a reason he shouldn’t lead off, recommending that he instead hit in the middle of the order to do more damage. However, the Cubs are lucky enough to have a plethora of position players that hit for plus power and who would be well-suited to hit behind Bryzzo in the back half of the lineup.
The most attractive aspect of WillCo’s offensive game, particularly where the topic at hand is concerned, is his ability to get on base. His .362 wOBA in 2017 ranked third on the team (min. 400 PA) behind the Bryant and Rizzo. This alone is enough to consider him for a leadoff role. Then you figure that he hit for a .375/.444/.750 line paired with a wRC+ of 207 when batting at the top of the order. Oh wait, that was only 10 plate appearances. Still sounds nice though, right?
Another attractive aspect of Contreras leading off is, well, he’s a catcher. This position naturally has more off days compared to other position players, which would allow Maddon to get creative with lineup construction, one of his fortes. On days Contreras rests, Maddon could choose to lead off with Zobrist, assuming his wrist issue doesn’t carry into this season. He could also experiment with Almora, particularly against southpaws, if he shows signs of better plate discipline early on in the year.
Opening the season with Contreras as the leadoff hitter is alluring. This would be similar to the Schwarber experiment last season, except with more proven numbers to justify the decision. Contreras could provide the consistent spark the Cubs were searching for at the top of the lineup last season, both with his bat and his fiery personality.