It was already evident from his placement in spring lineups that Nico Hoerner was the frontrunner to be the legit leadoff hitter the Cubs have sought since Dexter Fowler left. Among many disparate factors, the lack of a true table-setter atop the order bears a significant portion of the blame for the Cubs’ failure to sustain the momentum of their title run. They quickly went from “You go, we go” to “He gone, we done” as a revolving door of hitters fizzled when trying to spark an offense that broke somewhere along the lines.
Hoerner isn’t an ideal candidate on paper because his low walk rate ensures his on-base percentage is predicated on a high batting average, though his offensive profile has plenty of promise. He struck out at just an 11% clip last season and showed enough pop to be dangerous, plus he stole 20 bases even before they were enlarged. He’s also a plus baserunner who can go first to third or score from second on singles with ease.
Beyond that, he’s taken a leadership role on the team by providing an example with his preparedness and the way he carries himself. Those qualities aren’t quite the same as getting on base and scoring runs, but they’re still important to a team still trying to suss out its identity.
“When I look at Nico, it’s about setting a tone for our group to start a game,” David Ross explained. “He’s as ready to go as anybody I’ve ever been around. Something about the way he plays sets a great tone for our team, so I like him starting things off.”
That’s as close as you’ll get to confirmation at this point, so I think it’s safe to say the job is Hoerner’s barring an unexpected change. I like that Ross has made the decision early in order to let Hoerner settle into the role and hone his plate approach. To wit, he has yet to take a walk through four games so far and he appears to be attacking early in counts. He doesn’t need to go all Miguel Vargas, but taking a few more pitches wouldn’t be a bad thing.
Miguel Vargas hasn't swung at a pitch all spring and everyone knows he isn't going to swing and he has 4 walks in 8 trips to the plate. pic.twitter.com/QpigxPctmr
— Codify (@CodifyBaseball) March 3, 2023
Then again, this Cubs team isn’t like those of the past that just needed to get runners on so they could mash multi-run homers. Having a more aggressive leadoff hitter setting up a lineup that can score via small ball could be very beneficial and might even produce more consistent results. Not that we can really judge much from games in which the starters exit early.
There are really two spots locked down so far, as Dansby Swanson will almost certainly be the No. 2 hitter. Ian Happ is likely going to bat third, so now it’s just a matter of determining where everyone slots in at cleanup on down. I’d love to see Cody Bellinger and his new/old swing in a big run-producing spot, then it’s probably Trey Mancini, whoever’s at DH, Eric Hosmer, Nick Madrigal, and either Tucker Barnhart or Yan Gomes.
I opted for Madrigal over Wisdom there because it really feels like the Cubs are intent on keeping that contact bat in the lineup as often as possible. Things will change when Seiya Suzuki is back as well, so this is all just a thought exercise for the time being. Speaking of which, I’m embarrassed to admit how many times I had to count through my hypothetical order before remembering the DH.
Anyway, Hoerner is the leadoff hitter and that sounds pretty good.