Talking about a leadoff hitter feels a little bit like putting the cart in front of the horse. But there are a lot of fans and media that truly believe the Chicago Cubs need a leadoff hitter. The way the current roster is set, this is something the team doesn’t have. This could be a problem, or if you agree with Theo Epstein, it isn’t an issue at all.
There are a lot of opposing voices on the true value of a leadoff man in today’s game. Some stand by that tried and true belief that you need that guy at the top that sees a lot of pitches, that puts the ball in play, and is speedy. The other camp, more of a new school camp, believes as long as a guy gets on-base at a high rate that you don’t need that prototypical guy.
While we don’t know what camp is right, we can certainly point to 2016 for a small sample.
The Cubs were 85-40 in 2016 with Dexter in the lineup. To add, the Cubs had a 55-13 record when Dexter scored a run and an impressive 14-1 when he scored more than one run. Dexter, especially in 2016, was a difference-making leadoff hitter. A guy that watched pitches, took walks, put balls in play, but also had very good pop.
In games where Fowler didn’t play, the Cubs were 9-16 and scored a total of 110 runs in 26 games. That is an average of 4.2 runs a game. For the season, the Cubs averaged 5.2 runs a game with Dexter in the lineup. On a small sample size, Dexter was worth a run a game to the Cubs.
Fast-forward to 2017 and some of the new-school analytical guys will argue against the leadoff man. Here’s why.
The Cubs began the year with a slugger, Kyle Schwarber, in the leadoff spot. Then they moved to a platoon of Jon Jay, Ben Zobrist, Anthony Rizzo, and a few others to start things off. While Cubs leadoff hitters performed poorly in 2017 (.246/.324/.422), the Cubs actually scored more runs (822).
Now ultimately all that really matters is the record, and the Cubs won 10 more games and the World Series in 2016.
Usually, Theo is rather transparent in his thoughts. So when he said he sees having a leadoff hitter as a luxury and not a priority, I tend to believe him. I tend to believe that a leadoff hitter isn’t on the Cubs list of needs for the offseason.
That was until I started to hear the rumors of the Cubs having interest in bringing in Christian Yelich. Then the rumors were doubled-down on when Lorenzo Cain was connected to the Cubs.
To be fair, I haven’t heard many others talking about this besides CBS Sports Bruce Levine. Thing is, he is good and typically reliable and ethical. Even though everyone knew the Cubs had offered Brandon Morrow a contract in early December, he waited a couple weeks to report that as fact. That said, here is what Levine is now reporting.
On Cubs: "If they're able to sign Cobb for something less than 20 mil a year then they very well might pursue Lorenzo Cain. If they sign an Arrieta or Darvish then they'd be open to a trade for Yelich." –@MLBBruceLevine just now with us. https://t.co/t7x173VxNa
— Bernstein & Goff (@Bernstein_Goff) January 4, 2018
— Bleacher Nation (@BleacherNation) January 4, 2018
Yelich makes a ton of sense. If they are going to trade young talent (Albert Almora would likely lead the list), they would need someone in return that is controllable. Yelich has four-years of control while Almora in under team control for five years.
Cain would be yet another expensive free agent. But one that clogs up the Cubs outfield even more. He is a centerfielder and a right-handed hitter, the exact same thing Albert Almora is. So it would mean either yet another season of unimpressive playing time for Almora, moving Almora or Cain to LF, or trading Almora. It would most likely be the latter.
Almora has a lot of value on the market, and he has been tied to multiple starting pitchers in trade talks. So to add to Bruce’s thought here, the Cubs could potentially trade Almora for a starting pitcher, forgo signing Cobb or Yu Darvish or Jake Arrieta. This would allow the Cubs to bank some additional funds for later moves or, probably the main focus, signing Bryce Harper next year.
Which makes more sense
Cain has been an all-star and has played on a Worlds Series championship team. That kind of experience is important and has some value. But he might not answer the Cubs leadoff questions. He did not bat leadoff in 2017 and hasn’t led off since the 2014 season. Even then he was less than stellar. He does possess the speed that the Cubs severely lack.
Yelich is in the same position, but without the speed or the championship pedigree. Christian can leadoff, but he hasn’t done it since the 2014 season. Yelich can steal bases, but he has hit in front of Giancarlo Stanton the last several years and hasn’t needed to.
Talentwise, I think they are pretty interchangeable. Cain has extra experience, and you know what you are getting with him. Yelich is still young and is still becoming the player that he will be. He is also quite cheaper and would cost the Cubs Almora and his salary. According to MLB Trade Rumors, Cain should earn an estimated four-year $70 million deal or an average AAV of $17.5 million deal. Yelich has roughly $51.25 million remaining on his deal, with an average AAV of $12.8 million.
Cain will be 32 come April of this year, while Yelich will be 26 this season. So there is an obvious age advantage for Christian. So while Yelich might cost the Cubs the likes of Almora as well as some a few prospects, and Cain would only cost money – Yelich makes a ton more sense. You are getting his prime years, he would be able to set the table for the big boppers in the Cubs lineup, he himself is a dangerous hitter.
Cain is a valuable hitter too, but at 32 years old his best years are likely behind him. He would be a nice addition, but it wouldn’t cause much excitement at all. Cain would be an older, more expensive, declining talent version of Yelich. I would more perfer Yelich. But in either case, I just don’t see this happening at all. This would be a complete curveball from what they have been moving towards, and it doesn’t make a ton of sense. At least to me.
So let me know, will either of these happen?