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Around the Horn: Predicting Cubs Opening Day Lineup

4 years agoTony Andracki

It’s finally time for some baseball.

Opening Day is less than six weeks away and while the Cubs made very few changes to their roster this winter, they now have a new manager writing out the lineup on a daily basis.

With that already comes some change. On Wednesday, David Ross announced Kris Bryant as his new everyday leadoff hitter – an effort to finally lock down an area of concern with the team since Dexter Fowler’s final year (2016).

“That leadoff spot has been a real thing around here since Dexter’s left,” Ross said. “The way [Bryant has] handled all the situations he’s been in over his career and risen to the occasion a lot of the times, he can handle that. That fifth at-bat for guys is a real thing and when that comes around, you gotta have a guy that wants that.

“I talked to Kris about that and he’s all in. He thinks he can be an impact player at the top of that order, just like I do. It slots guys in really well after him.”

Ross wouldn’t commit to the rest of his lineup, but also said Bryant and Anthony Rizzo could form a “good 1-2 punch at the top” so it’s fair to assume Rizzo will hit second.

What might the rest of Ross’ Opening Day lineup look like from there?

We gave our best guess and asked fans to weigh in earlier this winter (before the news about Bryant leading off broke), too:

Tony Andracki, Cubs Reporter / Digital Content Manager

  1. Kris Bryant – 3B
  2. Anthony Rizzo – 1B
  3. Javier Báez – SS
  4. Kyle Schwarber – LF
  5. Willson Contreras – C
  6. Jason Heyward – RF
  7. Ian Happ – CF
  8. Jason Kipnis – 2B
  9. Kyle Hendricks – P

Bryant has long had the necessary skillset to thrive atop the Cubs order – high on-base percentage, great baserunning, works an at-bat, can give you an early lead. With no other clear option in sight, Ross had been thinking of utilizing Bryant in the role for a while, he just needed the buy-in first.

He has that now.

“He jumped on the opportunity,” Ross said. “He said, ‘I’ll do whatever you want me to do. I’d love to.’ I think he feels like he can score a ton of runs for us. You put a guy that throws the ball in the gap behind him and he can score from first.

“I mean, his strides around the bases, the way he runs the bases for us just a high IQ and I think about it from an opponent’s standpoint, it’s one of those elite bats at the top of the order that just keeps coming.”

Ross is also committed to this for the long haul, so expect to see a lot of games with Bryant taking the first at-bat.

“It’s really easy to change the lineup in my seat, but I think that screams panic when you start to change all that,” Ross said. “Like, this is one of the best players in baseball and putting him at the top of the order and how he goes about his business, I want representing our team night in and night out. And he’s on board with that, which is great.”

Rizzo might now be more willing to pass the torch of “Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time” to his business partner and slotting Baez behind them both makes sense as it ensures the Cubs’ top three hitters will bat in the first inning every single night and also means they will get the most at-bats.

With Schwarber’s explosion in the second half last season and Contreras’ ability, the top and heart of the order in this format gives the Cubs their best shot at an offense filled with firepower and – they hope – consistency. It also allows for a nice right-left-right-left-right combination, which is even more impactful now that pitchers are required to face a three-batter minimum.

Where things get really tricky is the bottom of the order. Yu Darvish was phenomenal over the last few months of 2019, but I’m betting Hendricks gets the call for Ross’ first Opening Day as manager. It’s hard to argue against Hendricks’ overall body of work (he has a 3.01 ERA over the last four seasons) and he checks all the boxes Ross is looking for from his Game 1 starter:

“I’m gonna put the guy that I see best fit for that spot,” Ross said. “The past success and who finished the season before and looks the best; I look back on who might’ve been the Game 1 starter last year in the playoffs and that’s kinda how I move forward. It’s all about how you’re throwing now. Obviously spring training, I get to watch and see who looks sharp and how the ball’s coming out and the bullpens. There’s a lot of guys that look really good right now. There’s a lot more that goes into it. It’s not about me. It’s about winning the game and the best chance to win the game is put our No. 1 starter out there.”

I’m expecting Nico Hoerner to begin the year in the minor leagues (he still hasn’t played a game at the Triple-A level), which means second base will probably come down to a timeshare between Kipnis, Daniel Descalso and David Bote (with Happ, Hernan Perez and Robel Garcia also potentially in the mix).

Since the Brewers are most likely to start a right-hander (Brandon Woodruff) on Opening Day, I’m betting Ross will play the matchup and get the left-handed-hitting Kipnis in the lineup over Bote with Descalso serving as a left-handed bat off the bench.

Andy Martinez, Cubs Contributor / Social & Digital Media Coordinator

  1. Kris Bryant – 3B
  2. Anthony Rizzo – 1B
  3. Javier Báez – SS
  4. Kyle Schwarber – LF
  5. Willson Contreras – C
  6. Jason Heyward – RF
  7. David Bote – 2B
  8. Kyle Hendricks – SP
  9. Ian Happ – CF

Ross’ announcement that Bryant would be the Cubs leadoff hitter makes a lot of sense. He’ll make the pitcher work and can get on base. Some might worry his RBI numbers could go down in the leadoff spot, but Bryant should still have the ability to knock in some runners with strong performances from the bottom of the order. Bryant will give the Cubs the ability to start the game on a high-rhythm and on Opening Day likely against Woodruff in Milwaukee, that’ll be crucial. The three-batter minimum rule for pitchers means we’re most likely going to see more lefty-righty alternating lineups, hence Rizzo hitting second. It’s a trend we might see not just with the Cubs, but across the majors. It’s a lot of power at the top of the lineup, but who wouldn’t want to potentially see back-to-back-to-back-to-back home runs to start the season?

Hoerner will most likely start the season in Iowa, which is alright and not a cause to panic. While he began his major league career on a great note, there’s still some fine tuning and seasoning that could benefit the 22-year-old. The last thing you want is to stunt his development by overexposing him to major league pitching. Remember what happened to Schwarber in 2017? He could be a longer-term answer at the leadoff spot — his career OBP in the minors is .365 — if he can improve on his .305 OBP in the majors.

Bote makes a strong case at second, slashing .271/.380/.440 against righties — presuming Woodruff is the Brewers’ Opening Day starter — last season. Bote’s relatively high on-base percentage against right handed pitching creates opportunities for Hendricks to advance him and let Happ either bring him in or also get on base for the big bats of Bryant, Rizzo and Báez. Bote has been working on his fielding this offseason and, with a strong spring training, can earn the second base job out of camp. 

Hendricks had his worst season — by ERA — last year since 2015, his first full season in the big leagues. He’s poised to have a bounce-back year in 2020. A solid spring training could propel Hendricks to get the opening day nod, although it’s hard to discredit Darvish’s stellar second half in 2019 and not want to give him the opening day start if he performs well in February and March.

Andy Martinez contributed to this article

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