Cubs continue search for elusive leadoff hitter.
Cubs’ never-ending search for a leadoff hitter continues on
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.”
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.