Some fans of the team first thought the beat writer was either joking or was the butt of a joke. It turns out new manager David Ross and the Cubs’ third baseman have had several conversations about Bryant leading off.
The superstar slugger, who has been the subject of trade rumors since the 2019 regular season ended, apparently went to Ross when the team arrived at its spring training complex and raised the proposition. Jordan Bastion confirmed on Twitter he was also told Bryant is going to get his shot. Bastion added nothing was set in stone yet, and it’s not clear if that means Kris Bryant will be the full-time leadoff hitter this spring or will be among those trying out for the job.
Bastion did point out the Cubs could do worse at the leadoff spot — if the team values that spot in the order reaching base. Major League leadoff hitters in 2019 combined for a 20.2 percent strikeout rate and an 8.6 percent walk rate. Bryant’s K rate was a bit higher — but not out of line — at 22.9 percent, and his walk rate was quite a bit better at 11.7 in 2019. That walk rate is even a bit higher over the course of his career.
Putting Bryant at leadoff would answer the biggest question the lineup faced heading into the 2020 season. Not since 2016 has Chicago had a dedicated leadoff man who got on base consistently. That year — their last World Series championship — Dexter Fowler took the mantle and never looked back. He departed for the St. Louis Cardinals in that offseason.
Since Fowler’s exit, the team has tried Albert Almora, Ian Happ, Jason Heyward, Tony Kemp, Anthony Rizzo and a cast of thousands in the spot in hopes of getting a consistent table-setter. With the exception of Rizzo — who is simply too valuable a bat in the middle of the order to leave at the top — all attempts at finding someone who could work there have been well below average.
While Bryant’s bat can play as a middle of the order basher, his on-base skills have usually had him batting second or third over the course of his career. While former Chicago Cubs coach Joe Maddon was known for shifting the lineup often, he was reticent to try Kris Bryant at the top. It appears his successor is willing to give it a shot.