Ian Happ batting in the leadoff spot in Friday’s opening game was not a fluke. As Joe Maddon said prior to the game, Happ would be one of four players getting a shot at the top of the order this spring. Kyle Schwarber, who hit second against the Brewers, may get another chance to lead off as well. Maddon didn’t mention anyone else by name, but did say that Kris Bryant would not be among the possibilities.
Before we get to the other two options — and I’m pretty sure you can guess them anyway — let’s have another brief discussion about Bryant batting atop the order. As unconventional as it might seem, there is some legitimate baseball logic behind the idea. Not only could Bryant’s power shift the odds of the game immediately, but he’s the Cubs’ best on-base threat and he’s got the kind of speed you desire in a leadoff hitter.
Our Connor Johnson even looked at the possibility of Willson Contreras filling that role, though the catcher doesn’t appear to be in the conversation at this point. Not for anything other than a one-off deal, anyway.
So that leaves us with two more possibilities, the first of which is surely Ben Zobrist. Playing with a healthy wrist for the first time since late last May, Zobrist’s patience and ability to make contact from both sides of the plate make him a fairly natural fit.
The final option is probably Albert Almora Jr, though his presence in the No. 1 spot would only come with a lefty on the mound. Despite his improved performance against right-handed pitchers in the second half, Almora doesn’t reach base against them at enough of a clip to merit a spot in the top two-thirds of the order, let alone the leadoff spot. Against lefties, however, he posted a .411 OBP that was second on the team to only Bryant (.439).
Happ had only a .313 OBP against southpaws, while Schwarber put up a .306 and Zobrist a miserable .261 that was largely due to the left wrist issue that hampered his performance from the right side. The 37-year-old utilityman has managed a career .364 mark against lefties, however, so he’s obviously got the chops to handle it. Thing is, he’s probably not going to be getting enough everyday playing time to make him a constant presence at leadoff.
As has been assumed for a while, the Cubs are going to be rotating leadoff hitters based on personnel for each individual game. Almora looks like a relatively obvious choice against lefties, with Zobrist taking over when he’s in the lineup and a righty is on the mound. Schwarber has such a great approach and would be an excellent choice on paper, but that’s the same thing we said last season. Well, some of us did.
Maddon choosing to use the slimmed-down slugger in the top spot again would not be about stubbornness, it’d be a matter of making the most sense given the roster he’s got. Then again, Happ offers a similar skillset with better speed and the ability to bat from both sides. If he can cut down on the swing-and-miss, he’s a nice option up there as well.
The only thing we can be sure of at this point is that Maddon is going to mix and match quite a bit throughout the season, and that may mean flexing a few other hitters into the leadoff spot as the situation dictates. Hey, maybe we’ll get to see Bryant up there after all. Actually, no, that would probably mean the offense has stagnated, which is what spurred Maddon to shift Anthony Rizzo up there last year.
So what do you think, dear reader? Is there anyone else on the roster you’d be comfortable batting first on a daily basis, or would you go with the daily matchups?