If ever the term "mad scientist" applied to a baseball manager, then Chicago Cubs skipper Joe Maddon has dibs on it. He’s not one to play the same eight players every day in the same position in the batting order.
In fact, his philosophy is in stark contrast to many others. He wants his players -- including his bullpen -- to be on their toes. One day Kris Bryant might be batting fourth and playing third base, the next he could be hitting third and playing right field.
Maybe there will be less moving around this year, but don’t count on it because the other philosophy Maddon espouses is rest. He wants his guys fresh for the long haul -- including his star players. That could mean sitting guys even in the heart of a pennant race, as he did last season. It also gives him the opportunity to mix and match his lineup accordingly.
Let’s examine some possibilities:
Right now we have to assume Jason Heyward will lead off and Ben Zobrist will bat second. Squeezing righty Bryant between No. 3 hitter Anthony Rizzo and No. 5 slugger Kyle Schwarber makes sense if Maddon wants to keep a lefty-righty flow to the order. Against righties -- if Chris Coghlan isn’t playing -- Jorge Soler batting sixth also makes sense, followed by the catcher. Then the decision is either to bat the pitcher eighth, as Maddon did last year, or move the catcher down and shortstop Addison Russell up. With such a stacked lineup, he may choose to leave Russell in the No. 9 hole, as his budding ability to reach base could make Heyward even more dangerous at the top of the order. And remember, he might be a “veteran” now but Russell is still very young and learning the game, so keeping pressure off him in the 9-hole could still be a good idea. It worked last year. Or maybe the numbers indicate there were too many missed chances with the pitcher batting eighth and Maddon returns to a more traditional look. At this point, it might be splitting hairs. I like Russell No. 9, so here’s what the lineup could look like:
1. Heyward, CF
2. Zobrist, 2B
3. Rizzo, 1B
4. Bryant, 3B
5. Schwarber, LF
6. Soler, RF
7. Montero, C
9. Russell, SS
When Zobrist gets a day off things could change, as Javier Baez isn’t likely to bat second. Maybe that’s when Russell gets moved all the way up as he continues his development -- getting a taste of the top of the order without the pressure of being there all the time could be beneficial. Of course, Schwarber and Soler also have experience batting second. When Schwarber gets a day off against a tough lefty, then Soler and Russell also could move up. On days David Ross catches, there’s also the chance Maddon just goes with his top seven hitters in order knowing he doesn’t have the same luxury he normally has within his lineup. Hopefully the damage is done by the time Ross and Jon Lester come to the plate.
A change in all this could come if the Cubs' middle or even bottom of the order starts stranding runners, as was the case last year. The team already has intimated Zobrist or Heyward could become more valuable in RBI positions considering their abilities to put the ball in play. Over the course of his career, Zobrist has driven in a runner from third base with fewer than two outs 55 percent of the time. Heyward did it 54 percent just last season and was successful 74 percent of the time in 2014. The league average is 51 percent, but the Cubs brought runners home from third base with fewer than two outs last season just 41 percent of the time, ranking dead last in baseball.
So let’s take a look at an alternative lineup if more contact is needed in the middle of the order.
1. Zobrist or Heyward
5. Heyward or Zobrist
These are just a few possibilities for Maddon. He also can stack the lineup with lefties all in a row to force the issue, as he did against Lance Lynn of the St. Louis Cardinals. He had trouble throwing strikes against so many lefties in a row. Maddon could do the same from the other side of the plate with Baez, Soler and Russell playing more prominent roles near the top or middle of the lineup.
The combinations are endless and Maddon is sure to use them all.