Finding an everyday leadoff hitter isn’t the Cubs’ most pressing need, but it’s probably been their most talked-about over the last three seasons. That’s a little misleading when you really get down to it, since the loss of Dexter Fowler left a void much larger than just a hole in the lineup. Along with David Ross, the center fielder served as a tone-setter and emotional leader who just happened to capably occupy the leadoff spot.
Given how fluid the Cubs have been in all other areas, actively seeking out players who can move around the field and the batting order, it seems odd that they’d want a specific leadoff hitter. Who’s up first should be irrelevant as long as they reach base at a decent clip, right? Trouble is, the Cubs haven’t really done that. Their .328 OBP and 98 wRC+ out of the top spot since 2017 both rank 18th in MLB, but their .294 and 77 marks in 2019 ranked dead last.
That kind of abject failure may have the front office targeting a specific leadoff hitter, and it’s for the same reason Fowler was able to excel. Well, sort of the same reason. As much as common sense tells you that a hitter only leads off the game once and that it’s a simple matter of going out there and working the same approach, it doesn’t work that way in reality. One need look no further than Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward to see that some hitters inexplicably crumble when batting leadoff.
Among the names we’ve heard most frequently this offseason are Whit Merrifield, who’s been tied to Cubs long enough to challenge Brian Roberts‘ rumor record, and Starling Marte. Though intra-divisional trades aren’t common, the Pirates are rebuilding under new leadership and may not have as much of an aversion to dealing with the Cubs. What’s more, GM Ben Cherington is very familiar with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer from their days in Boston.
Both Marte and Merrifield will extract a heavy price in terms of player and/or prospect capital, though, so perhaps someone else would be more amenable. To that end, Bruce Levine of 670 The Score adds a new name to the mix. In a column about what’s on the Cubs’ to-do list, the seasoned scribe noted that Ender Inciarte “could be another option” as they search for someone to hold down center and leadoff.
The lefty-hitting Inciarte just turned 29 in late October and has two years remaining on a five-year, $30.5 million contract with a $9 million team option for 2022. But while he’s guaranteed $17.4 million over that time, his actual hit is only $6.1 million in AAV because the early years of his contract featured lower annual salaries. While that’s still about $2 million more than Merrifield is owed, the Braves won’t be seeking nearly as much in trade value.
That’s because hamstring, quad, and back issues limited Inciarte to just 230 plate appearances in 2019. Not exactly encouraging when you’re talking about a guy whose production is heavily predicated on speed. He did manage a .342 OBP when he was able play last season, smacking five homers and stealing seven bases, and his 0.9 fWAR was just about in line with his 3.0 fWAR average over the three previous seasons.
And for what it’s worth, Inciarte is a guy the Cubs have had their eye on for several years now. Though nothing ever came of it, there was talk back in 2015 that he could be coming to Chicago in return for Jorge Soler. If we know one thing about this front office, it’s that they tend to develop infatuation for certain players that can stretch over long periods and multiple teams, so maybe Inciarte is one such player.
Or maybe he’s just a name Levine decided to throw out there to break up the monotony and see if some hack bloggers would pick it up and run with it. Well played, Bruce.
Which direction the Cubs decide to take will be dependent upon what they think they’ve got in Ian Happ and whether they are really interested in reuniting with Nicholas Castellanos. As much as people like the latter option, Nicky Two Bags ain’t coming back if the Cubs get someone to play center. But hey, maybe the 26-man roster will mean carrying all the outfielders.