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Who’s up first? Who knows? Cubs use spring to audition leadoff candidates

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — It’s not even March, so take it for what it’s worth.

But when Ian Happ worked a full count, then skied an opposite-field home run off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner leading off the exhibition game Sunday, it offered a glimpse at how the Cubs drew up their plans for what might be the only thing they have to figure out this spring.

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“It’s purposeful,” Maddon said. “We’re going to try to audition the dudes that we think might be in that spot.”

The Cubs' Ian Happ is crushing it this spring.

That spot, of course, is leadoff, which quickly became a sore spot last season, when Kyle Schwarber slumped out of the gate.

By the end of the season, Maddon had used 11 players to lead off, including Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras and Leonys Martin.

The Cubs went from having the best on-base percentage in the majors (.381) from that spot during their championship season with Dexter Fowler to 10th in the National League (.324) after Fowler signed with the Cardinals.

Home runs were up, but runs scored were down as the Cubs mixed and matched at the top for most of the season in an effort to jump-start an inconsistent lineup.

It still was productive enough to score 822 runs, second only to the Rockies in the NL.

The Cubs project a bump based on just returns from injuries and some younger players maturing.

And if they can strengthen the leadoff spot?

Maddon expects to focus on “probably four” players in his leadoff auditions, and, yes, that includes the leaner, keener Schwarber.

Albert Almora Jr., against left-handers, and switch-hitting veteran Ben Zobrist also are part of a mix that figures to become a leadoff-by-committee, determined daily by a calculus involving pitching matchups, left-right balance and defensive assignments.

Happ, another switch hitter, could be an important part of the group, with a 115-game rookie season behind him and a willingness to embrace the assignment.

“He’s all in with that,” Maddon said.

“I feel comfortable in that spot,” said Happ, who has hit leadoff in two of the Cubs’ first three games and believes he has the confidence it takes to have success there. “I think the guys that are the best at it are the ones that are really confident in themselves, believe in themselves and know they can do it.”

Nobody ever accused Schwarber of lacking confidence. But his lack of overall experience after missing almost all of 2016 with an injury didn’t help his cause, and it eventually took a brief demotion to the minors to regroup.

“It’s not an easy position to hit in, I can say that,” said Zobrist, the most experienced and probably best equipped Cub to handle the spot regularly. The team might lean on him when he cycles into the lineup as a semiregular.

“It takes a little bit of experience and practice to do it and be good at it,” Zobrist said. “And some guys are more comfortable there than others. It hasn’t been one of my most comfortable spots to hit in over the course of my career, but I know I can do it if it comes to that.”

Zobrist said it’s about preparing for at-bats to come quicker over the course of a game and expecting to get five, even six at-bats a game after getting used to four.

Maddon said he “loves” having a switch hitter at the top and considers natural-side splits when picking a switch hitter to lead off. He likes to be able to arrange his lineup in a left-right-left-right sequence.

“We’ll just play it out,” he said. “But listen, I don’t jones over it, quite frankly. We’re going to arrive at somebody.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.

Email: gwittenmyer@suntimes.com