We’ve pretty much figured all along that the Cubs would be playing a shell game of sorts at the top spot in the order, given their lack of a prototypical leadoff hitter. But then Ian Happ came along and started blasting home runs while making diving plays in center, essentially erasing all doubt about his aptitude for the role. His subsequent cool-off, however, has led the discussion back around to where it started.
Of all the possible options for the top spot in the order, Happ feels most like the one you need in the lineup as often as possible. Jason Heyward has spent some time there this spring, but he’s not a guy you want getting extra plate appearances; Albert Almora Jr. still has some weaknesses against righties; Ben Zobrist is on the downslope of his career.
And while ol’ Happer still has that square-peg-in-a-round-hole feel, I’ll be damned if he hasn’t busted out a mallet and pounded the hell out of that peg until it fit. You just get the sense that he’s going to make things happen, whether you think he should be able to or not.
“I think [Happ] has answered that he’s capable of doing this and that he wants to do this,” Maddon told reporters Wednesday. “You’ll probably see him there a bit. I haven’t finalized anything. [We were looking at] a combination, which is what we thought in the beginning, and then he went out and grabbed it and has gotten better.”
Maddon went on to liken the situation at the top of the lineup to that at the back of the bullpen, though we’ve heard on more than one occasion that Brandon Morrow is the unquestioned closer. Setting the granular accuracy of the analogy aside, what Maddon’s saying is that none of the candidates for the leadoff role is a guy who’s going to be in the lineup on a daily basis.
As such, it’s going to be necessary to spread the duties around.
“It’s leadoff by committee as of right now,” the manager admitted. “Let’s try to make our best choice and see where that plays us, and if somebody wants to be the closer, go ahead and be the closer. If somebody wants to be the leadoff hitter, go ahead and be the leaodff hitter.”
For all the couching and coachspeak, it does sound as though Happ will be the guy sitting at the head of the table. That’s a pretty easy decision based on what we’ve seen thus far. When it comes to the guys behind the plate, however, the choice may not be as clear.
Chris Gimenez has been the odds-on favorite to earn a roster spot since the time the Cubs signed him, and those odds got shorter when his buddy, Yu Darvish, joined him in Chicago. More than a lure to land the ace pitcher, Gimenez brings a veteran presence and solid defense that should aid the other four members of the rotation in addition to Darvish.
As a bat-first backstop who still needs to work on his game-calling acumen and overall defensive prowess, Victor Caratini might not be as good a fit for the roster at this point. There’s also the matter of playing time, especially now that Willson Contreras is rounding into MVP form and should be in the lineup five or six days a week.
But as Maddon puts it, the decision isn’t quite as simple as I’ve made it out to be.
“That’s probably going to be the most difficult decision or conversation,” Maddon said. “It has been among all of us. This will go down to the wire.”
Now, it’s very possible the Cubs skipper is simply engaging in a bit of political rhetoric, not wanting to concede anything or to upset any of the parties who’ll be on the outside looking in. As we had discussed earlier this week, there are still some decisions to be made with the pitching staff and the Cubs want every possible moment to determine exactly what they do with the pitching staff and position players.
When all is said and done, I still think they will carry 13 pitchers even if Pedro Strop opens the season on the shelf. In the event that they do go with 12, however, Caratini could break camp as depth both behind the plate and at first base.
Can we just get to March 29 already?