Now that baseball is set to return, the Cubs can now turn their focus to the top of the lineup as they hope former MVP Kris Bryant is the answer to their leadoff woes.
It’s been well documented that the Cubs have had a hard time finding a leadoff hitter to replace Dexter Fowler. As Matt Synder from CBS Sports points out, the Cubs leadoff numbers have been trending down since Fowler left Chicago for St. Louis after the 2016 season.
In 2019, Cubs leadoff hitters were pitiful, slashing .212/.294/.383 as Joe Maddon tried a few players in the role with few positive results. So coming into the 2020 season, new manager David Ross knew he needed to make changes at the top of the lineup card – so he went with arguably his best hitter.
And while Bryant has been one the Cubs run-producers since making his debut in 2015, Bryant is one of the game’s more well-rounded players. He’s an elite hitter, an above-average baserunner with surprising speed, his baseball I.Q. has always impressed people around the game, and he’s scored 100+ runs in three of his five seasons.
While he’s not the clear leadoff hitter many envision when building a lineup, his career .385 OBP makes him an ideal candidate to put in front of power bats like Anthony Rizzo and Kyle Schwarber. And Ross seems committed to Bryant as the Cubs permanent leadoff hitter, telling The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney how excited he was that Bryant was on board with the idea.
“This is a commitment on his part,” Ross said. “It’s really easy to change the lineup in my seat. But I think that screams panic when you start to change all that. 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 (that) representing our team night in and night out.”
But what makes Bryant the focal point of the Cubs in 2020 is what happened prior to this season, as the third baseman dominated baseball headlines due to his grievance filed against the Cubs involving service time manipulation – which he lost back on January 29th.
Had Bryant won, he would have been set to become a free agent at this season but instead will remain under contract with the Cubs through 2021. But because the grievance process took so long to be completed, Chicago was unable to get real value back for their franchise player. Despite being contacted by multiple teams, the Cubs couldn’t find a deal that made sense for Bryant as teams were too worried about his grievance to make a real offer.
So the Cubs went through the entire offseason without a clear direction, making few changes to their roster. All while trade rumors involving Bryant popped up periodically throughout the entire offseason, making it hard to see what the Cubs outlook was for 2020.
At the moment, Theo Epstein and his front office seem confident in David Ross and his ability to make the necessary changes in accountability after Joe Maddon’s departure. And before Spring Training was suspended, Ross and his leadership were one of the biggest stories of the season so far, as players seemed to be buying into what Ross had to say.
Jon Lester summed it up well in a quote to Sahadev Sharma of The Athletic:
“When he speaks, he speaks from experience and from his heart. I think people can see and feel that.”
And while that all sounds great during spring training, Ross is still a rookie manager who’s job got much more difficult in a 60-game season. Bryant finding success in the leadoff spot will not only dictate how the 2020 season goes but could also be the deciding factor on whether the Cubs continue to chase titles or take a step back and re-tool.
Kris Bryant returning to his MVP-form at the top of the lineup could help the Cubs get back to the top of the National League. But if the Cubs struggle in a shortened season and Bryant isn’t producing as a leadoff hitter, that may enough for the front office to decide to make changes on the North Side of Chicago.