Cubs leaning on Marlon Byrd in 3-hole
By GORDON WITTENMYER email@example.com
A look at the Cubs who started games hitting third most frequently in the last decade:
2010: Derrek Lee 96, Marlon Byrd 52
2009: Derrek Lee 91, Kosuke Fukudome 32, Milton Bradley 26
2008: Derrek Lee 154
2007: Derrek Lee 144
2006: Aramis Ramirez 54, Michael Barrett 34, T. Walker 34
2005: Derrek Lee 135, Nomar Garciaparra 12
2004: Sammy Sosa 60, Moises Alou 48, Aramis Ramirez 21
2003: Sammy Sosa 108, Corey Patterson 37
2002: Sammy Sosa 148
2001: Sammy Sosa 141
2000: Sammy Sosa 101, Mark Grace 54
MESA, Ariz. — The pressure’s on Marlon Byrd, and it has nothing to do with Victor Conte.
It has everything to do with Derrek Lee, Nomar Garciaparra, Sammy Sosa, Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg and Andre Dawson — the various All-Stars, batting champs and Hall of Famers who make up an almost continuous line of Cubs No. 3 hitters dating back 25 years.
For all the peripheral babbling about leadoff hitters, the decision that will make a much bigger difference in the Cubs’ ability to score runs this season rests a little lower: how they fill the critical No. 3 hole — a spot they haven’t had to worry much about for a generation.
Byrd knows it. And Byrd says he’s ready to take the first crack at the No. 3 job manager Mike Quade plans to give him come Opening Day.
“If I am there and I’m doing my job, it makes Q’s job a lot easier,’’ Byrd said. “To not worry about your 3-4-5 [hitters], that’s a blessing in baseball.’’
And a more important component of a successful lineup, starting with that No. 3 spot, than a leadoff hole that Quade says he’s comfortable mixing and matching to fill.
“I don’t care what anybody says: It has an effect on all the guys right around him,’’ Quade said. “It’s a huge factor for my 4-hole guy [Aramis Ramirez].’’
And that’s where Byrd comes in, knowing that how well he can stabilize the middle of the order from Lee’s old spot — the role Billy Williams once filled for some of the best Cubs lineups of the last 50 years — will go a long way toward how well the Cubs fare in the National League Central.
“Hopefully, we don’t have to mix and match. That means I’m not doing my job,’’ he said. “I have to step up to fill that spot.
“I’m comfortable anywhere. But I would love to hit in the 3-hole.’’
He’s also acutely aware that his career hitting splits say that’s his worst spot for both batting average (.244) and OPS (.653) — although those numbers appear skewed by the fact that nearly two-thirds of his plate appearances in the 3-hole came last season, most of them during a poor second half after Lee’s trade to Atlanta.
“I don’t think they’re skewed. I think I need to step it up,’’ Byrd said. “I have to make sure my game carries to the 3-hole. I have to keep the line moving, especially with Aramis, the way he’s swinging the bat now. I mean, he’s ready for another .300, 30[-homer] year.
‘‘I can’t be that guy coming up with two outs, runner on second and not keep the line moving. I have to give him his opportunities.’’
If not, the Cubs may not have many other options.
Ramirez is most comfortable in the cleanup spot, and Quade plans to leave him there. Carlos Pena strikes out too much and looks too valuable as a power bat protecting Ramirez in the fifth spot. Starlin Castro has that kind of upside but doesn’t have the experience to inspire Quade to take him out of a good-fitting No. 2 spot.
Alfonso Soriano’s best spot is sixth at this stage of his career. Geovany Soto may become an option, but because he’s a catcher with regular days off, a backup option still would be needed.
‘‘I not only like the fact that Marlon accepts that as a heck of a challenge,’’ Quade said, ‘‘but I’ve got two experienced guys in the 3-4 holes, and let’s see how people around them emerge and see if that changes the mix.’’
Byrd sounds committed to avoiding the need for change.
After struggling with nagging injuries in the second half last season, along with the effects of his first season of heavy day baseball — particularly Wednesdays after night games and Saturday noon starts, regardless of sleep patterns — he says he’s more prepared for a big season.
A training regimen heavy on boxing workouts — similar to his offseason program before a breakout 2009 season — helped him drop about 10 pounds without stressing his legs and might be part of his .462 start this spring training.
“I’m thinking my second half will be better than my first half,’’ Byrd said of what had been a career trend until last season. ‘‘That’s what I train for. I train for August and September, when guys get tired, to be able to carry over and stay stronger.’’
And after a year of added day games, ‘‘I’m going to have that down pat,’’ he said.
One thing he won’t pretend to be is the kind of 30-homer, .400-on-base performer Lee was in his healthy seasons in Chicago.
‘‘Don’t get me wrong, I trust my ability, but I am no D-Lee,’’ Byrd said. ‘‘I need to go out there and do what I do, hit my .300 and make sure Rami’s coming up with runners in scoring position.
‘‘I have to come in and do my job.’’