Cubs’ leadoff situation no cause for alarm
By GORDON WITTENMYER firstname.lastname@example.org January 13, 2011 10:40PM
Kosuke Fukudome was the starting right fielder for the NL All-Star team as a rookie with the Cubs in 2008. | Scott Stewart-Sun-Times
Updated: May 4, 2011 4:46AM
This year’s Cubs Convention figures to be distinguished as much by who won’t be there as by who shows up.
Estranged Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg won’t be there for the first time in recent memory. Celebrity manager Lou Piniella is enjoying retirement in Florida. Convention-goers don’t even have Larry Rothschild to kick around and boo anymore.
And whether it’s a result of the lack of big names, a bad 2010 season or the economy, several hundred fans — give or take — also will be missing after a decades-long string of sold-out conventions.
But there’s another, more significant thing you won’t see at the convention this weekend at the downtown Hilton: a leadoff hitter.
And judging by some of the local reaction to the Cubs finishing their major winter to-do list by acquiring pitcher Matt Garza, that seems to weigh heavily on many fans’ minds.
Who’s going to lead off for this team? How can the Cubs contend without addressing the gap at the top of the order that has troubled them the last few years? Do they really think they’ll be any better without adding a true leadoff hitter?
Here’s a better question on that issue: Who cares?
New manager Mike Quade says he doesn’t know who his leadoff hitter will be or if he’ll even have a single hitter assigned to the spot. And that may be a subplot that plays out all season.
But it’s not nearly as significant as some might have you believe, especially when you consider the lack of impact leadoff hitters in the game today.
There might not be five legitimate, prototypical, every-day leadoff hitters in the majors (combining high on-base percentage and base-running ability), and you’d be hard-pressed to identify even one impact guy in that mold who was available this winter.
Never mind whether the Cubs would have been able to find one who fit a defensive opening — not to mention the limited payroll space.
Quade’s nonspecific solution
That’s why Quade seems to have no trouble with the idea of running two or three guys through that spot in a platoon or mix/match system, as he did in the 37 games he managed at the end of last season.
‘‘There’s a chance of that, for sure,’’ Quade said. ‘‘I think anytime you don’t have somebody who specifically fits the role — and I think if you look at this club, at least I do right now, and you say, ‘Who’s a perennial leadoff guy? Who’s a prototypical leadoff guy? Do we have one?’ And I would say I don’t think so — when the answer is ‘I don’t think so,’ then you do it by committee, mix and match, or maybe somebody this spring asserts themselves as this guy.
‘‘I would prefer to keep an open mind.’’
Might as well. Barring an unexpected trade or free-agent signing of a past-his-prime leadoff man, a combination of Jeff Baker (.395 OBP vs. lefties last year), Blake DeWitt (.342 vs. righties) and Kosuke Fukudome (.377 vs. righties) could be as good as it gets for the Cubs at the top of the lineup.
That won’t have nearly as much to do with whether they win or lose this year as whether Garza and Kerry Wood strengthen the pitching staff, whether Carlos Pena can boost the sagging middle of the order and whether guys like Aramis Ramirez and Alfonso Soriano become impact players on offense again.
Some might reasonably argue there’s a growing need for prototypical leadoff production in a post-testing era that has trended toward less scoring and underscored the importance of small-ball. But results don’t necessarily bear that out.
The best leadoff hitter in baseball last year by some measures was Ichiro Suzuki (.359 OBP, 42 steals), but he didn’t prevent the Seattle Mariners from being one of the worst teams in the majors, in large part because they were the lowest-scoring team in the majors.
Among all hitters with at least 400 plate appearances in the leadoff spot, the Milwaukee Brewers’ Rickie Weeks led with a .363 OBP. But the Brewers — even with Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder in the middle of the lineup — had a losing record and scored 40 fewer runs than the Cincinnati Reds, the National League Central champs.
That’s the same Reds team that used three different players for more than a month’s worth of games each in the leadoff spot and wound up leading the NL with 790 runs, mostly because of huge seasons by middle-order guys Joey Votto and Scott Rolen.
Power still means plenty
If anything, the post-testing trends have made legitimate big-power threats more significant because there are relatively fewer of them compared to the decade or two before testing. That suggests more of a premium on raw power.
The Reds, the Brewers and the St. Louis Cardinals — the teams expected to be the Cubs’ toughest division opponents this year — have significant power in the middle of their orders, and at least two don’t have a traditional leadoff man. On the other hand, two of the best leadoff men in the division, the Houston Astros’ Michael Bourn and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, play for teams projected to finish in the last two spots.
So don’t waste any time worrying about what the Cubs are going to do with their leadoff spot.
If anything, spend those concerns on how much better than .196 Pena is going to have to hit to produce the 35 or so home runs the Cubs need from him to lift their lineup into competitive shape.