Cubs con­tinue search for elu­sive lead­off hit­ter.

Cubs’ never-end­ing search for a lead­off hit­ter con­tin­ues on

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - CHICAGO SPORTS - By Mark Gon­za­les

A fan asked Theo Ep­stein why the Cubs should ex­pect bet­ter re­sults in 2020 from an in­con­sis­tent lineup likely com­posed of the same play­ers as sea­sons past.

“It’s not open­ing day yet,” Ep­stein replied Sat­ur­day dur­ing the base­ball op­er­a­tions panel on Day 2 of the Cubs Con­ven­tion at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “There’s still a chance of some changes.”

But, he added: “The bot­tom line is words don’t mat­ter. Ac­tions do.”

And the man­ner in which the Cubs have ad­dressed the lead­off spot in the wake of Dex­ter Fowler’s free-agent de­par­ture to the ri­val Car­di­nals has been mad­den­ing, con­sid­er­ing Cubs lead­off hit­ters posted a Na­tional League-worst .294 on-base per­cent­age last sea­son.

“Can­didly, I don’t think we ever imag­ined that find­ing a guy who could hit in the lead­off spot would be a strug­gle,” gen­eral man­ager Jed Hoyer said. “I don’t think you have to have a pro­to­typ­i­cal lead­off hit­ter all the time.

“But for what­ever rea­son, we’ve strug­gled. We’ve spent a lot of time scratch­ing our head.”

Hoyer ex­pressed his frus­tra­tion be­fore Ep­stein elab­o­rated on the Cubs’ ef­forts to pour mil­lions of dol­lars into staffing and equip­ment to­ward build­ing a state-ofthe-art re­search and de­vel­op­ment de­part­ment with a plethora of data.

Ep­stein said the Cubs likely will an­nounce on Tues­day the hir­ing of a biomech­a­nist who spent 20 years at NASA to en­hance their ef­fort to find a com­pet­i­tive edge. In the mean­time, the search re­mains for pro­duc­tion out of the lead­off spot, at which Kyle Sch­war­ber, Ian Happ and other can­di­dates have failed dur­ing the last three sea­sons.

Only slug­ger An­thony Rizzo has pros­pered at the top of the lineup, but he and the Cubs pre­fer he re­main in the run-pro­duc­ing No. 3 or 4 spot.

Hoyer senses that many past can­di­dates tended to change their ap­proach when moved to the lead­off spot with­out re­al­iz­ing they of­ten lead off only in the first in­ning.

“I never imag­ined that be­ing a lead­off hit­ter would be a strug­gle,” said Hoyer, ac­knowl­edg­ing that nat­u­ral lead­off hit­ters such as Johnny Da­mon and Fowler are hard to find and mov­ing close to ex­tinc­tion.

“Kevin Youk­ilis was not ex­actly a pro­to­typ­i­cal lead­off hit­ter but did well.”

Ep­stein, mean­while, tried to por­tray a bright fore­cast for the Cubs lineup by us­ing Happ and Sch­war­ber as mi­cro­cosms of young play­ers who strug­gled af­ter promis­ing de­buts but re­bounded late last sea­son.

“Don’t give up on the play­ers who have been here that might have driven you in­sane,” Ep­stein replied to the fan. “Be­cause I re­ally think a lot of them are on an up­ward tra­jec­tory and will make progress.”

New man­ager David Ross said there’s “no one who has jumped out” as a full-time lead­off can­di­date but will con­tinue to as­sess his in-house can­di­dates while Ep­stein and Hoyer con­tinue to ex­plore trades.

Ross did re­veal some in­ter­nal changes to spring train­ing at the sug­ges­tion of new catch­ing/first­base coach Craig Driver. The Cubs will use um­pires to pro­vide feedback with catch­ers and pitch­ers. Also, bat­ting prac­tice with a cage will give way to live hit­ting, with an um­pire pro­vid­ing con­stant com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

“Now we’ll take that (bat­ting cage) way and dial up the in­ten­sity a lit­tle bit,” Ross said.

One Joe Mad­don-in­flu­enced tra­di­tion that might stay in­tact, per­haps to a lower fre­quency, are theme trips.

“We’ll have all the pa­jama par­ties you want as long as we throw (wins),” Ross said. “We’ll switch some things up.”

Ross cred­ited Mad­don, now the An­gels man­ager, with es­tab­lish­ing a healthy cul­ture.

“Maybe team jump­suits,” Ross said. “I’ll leave it up to the play­ers. I’m not a great dresser.”

ABEL URIBE/CHICAGO TRI­BUNE

Cubs’ Ian Happ, poses with fans El­iz­a­beth Tsa­galis, 10, and brother Sam Tsa­galis, 8, at the Cubs Con­ven­tion.

Cubs man­ager David Ross, par­tic­i­pates in a Q/A with fans dur­ing the Cubs Con­ven­tion at the Sheraton on Sat­ur­day.

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