Leading Off Is Hard To Do

Reportedly the Cubs would like to add a little speed and athleticism to their lineup this winter but of late has focused on adding a left-handed bat to the middle of the lineup….and some former Cy Young award winner that pitches on the Left Coast.

Milton Bradley could be the newest Cub around the first of the year according to Bruce Levine but if that falls through while they are apparently shopping Jason Marquis and the one-year left on his contract, should the Cubs ‘switch gears’ and focus on adding a left-handed bat or a switch hitter to the top of their lineup instead?

The Cubs featured a very solid productive offensive team a year ago. Despite showing more patience at the plate than any other Cubs team in recent memory, struggled to manufacture runs. During a 162-game schedule offensive deficiencies can be masked but against top tier pitching whether it is during the season or in the playoffs, a team must have the ability to produce runs without the benefit of a hit.

With the success of the Tampa Bay Rays, teams will look to become more athletic in the coming years and less reliable on the longball to plate runs. Lou Piniella has preached the need for team speed since his tenure on the North Side began but with aging veterans, backloaded contracts and no-trade clauses, the Cubs will have a hard time implementing speed into their lineup, unless it is at the top of the order.

The mainstream media has linked the Cubs to a couple of players this winter that could fill the role….but every team, with a few exceptions, is searching for a ‘true‘ leadoff hitter. Are the days Kenny Lofton (in his prime), Ricky Henderson, Vince Coleman, Tim Raines, Brett Butler, Craig Biggio and Bobby Dernier, just to name a few, a thing of the past, or will those days return as organizations shift back to the fundamentals of the game in the post-steroid era?

Here’s a look at a few of the players the Cubs are rumored to be interested in that could help give Lou Piniella’s lineup next season more speed….

Rafael Furcal

Three years after he slipped through Jim Hendry’s fingers, the speedy shortstop is on the Cubs radar once again. The A’s are rumored to be the front-runner and the Blue Jays are also interested in signing Rafael Furcal, who is looking for a 4-year deal according to his agent. The 31-year old switch hitter would give the Cubs a proven bat at the top of the lineup.

Furcal is coming off an injury-shortened season in which he played only 36 games. Furcal had back surgery but reportedly is fully recovered. The Cubs were unfortunate enough to see how healthy he was during the NLDS.

Furcal put together a .357/.439 line with 12 doubles, 2 triples and 5 home runs in more than limited action last season. His first season with the Dodgers was solid while his OBP, slugging and OPS showed a significant drop in 2007.

  • 2006 – .300/.369/.445/.814 with 32 doubles, 9 triples, 15 home runs and 37 stolen bases (caught 13 times) in 159 games
  • 2007 – .270/.333/.355/.687 with 23 doubles, 4 triples, 6 home runs and 25 stolen bases (caught 6 times) in 138 games
  • Career Line – .286/.352/.412/.764

Furcal’s final year with the Braves in 2005 was right in line with his career numbers.

While Ryan Theriot is not the defensive shortstop that Furcal is, Theriot’s offensive numbers, with the exception of stolen bases and home runs, are quite similar.

  • 2007 – .266/.326/.346/.672 with 30 doubles, 2 triples, 3 home runs and 28 stolen bases (caught 4 times) in 148 games
  • 2008 – .307/.387/.359/.745 with 19 doubles, 4 triples, 1 home run and 22 stolen bases (caught 13 times) in 149 games
  • Career Line – .290/.362/.369/.732

Rafael Furcal would give the Cubs a more dynamic leadoff hitter and ‘the nameLou Piniella would need to move Alfonso Soriano out of leadoff spot. But a 4-year contract for Rafael Furcal might not be the best way to spend what money they have left for 2009 (and beyond) under the current ownership.

Brian Roberts

Jim Hendry spent most of last winter trying to pry Brian Roberts away from Andy MacPhail and Peter Angelos. The Cubs thought a deal was so close to being done that they even signed Alex Cintron to a minor league contract with an invitation to Spring Training and Lou Piniella dropped Alfonso Soriano into the two-hole for a short time. The deal never happened and Soriano hit at the top of Piniella’s order in 105 of the 109 games he played last year.

The Orioles are reportedly trying to sign Brian Roberts to a 4-year extension to keep him in Baltimore. If MacPhail cannot extend Roberts’ contract then the Orioles are expected to put him on the block once again this winter. All of the talk over Jake Peavy has kept the Roberts rumors to a minimum this winter but if the Orioles do not extend his contract in the coming weeks, the Winter of Roberts will soon have a sequel.

Roberts has one year left on a two-year, $14.3 million dollar extension he signed in March of 2007. Roberts is scheduled to make $8 million dollars in 2009.

The switch-hitting second baseman put together another solid year for the Orioles in 2008….and the Cubs were able to see first hand how good he is during the 3-games against Baltimore at Wrigley last June.

  • 2008 – .296/.378/.450/.828 with 51 doubles, 8 triples, 9 home runs and 40 stolen bases (caught 10 times) in 155 games
  • 2007 – .290/.377/.432/.808 with 42 doubles, 5 triples, 12 home runs and 50 stolen bases (caught 7 times) in 156 games
  • Career Line – .284/.355/.416/.771

Some of Roberts’ value has dropped because he is in the last year of his contract. Andy MacPhail will still want a King’s Ransom because players, especially leadoff hitters, like Roberts are hard to come by. If Jim Hendry ends up making a deal for Jake Peavy, the Cubs will not have enough to trade Baltimore for Brian Roberts…..especially with the fact if he hits the open market next winter, they can just overpay for his services.

Chone Figgins

Chone Figgins was linked to the Cubs last off-season via the rumor mill. The Angels reportedly asked for a lot for Figgins….one rumor even suggested Aramis Ramirez. Obviously the Cubs moved on and focused on Brian Roberts.

Last week during the Winter Meetings when Mark DeRosa was believed to be in the four-team deal for Jake Peavy, two reports stated the Cubs asked the Angels about Chone Figgins. But would he be the answer?

Figgins was offered arbitration by the Angels before Friday’s deadline after making $4.75 million in 2008. According to a report from MLB.com, Figgins “can anticipate a healthy raise after another solid season.” Figgins will become a free agent after the 2009 season.

Last year Figgins played 105 games at third base, nine games at second, two as the Angels’ DH and two as a pinch-hitter and runner. For his career a majority of his time has been as a third baseman (386 games) but has played 111 games at second, 244 in center, 35 in left, 27 in right and 27 at short…the last time he played center was in 2006 and it was only for 96 games.

Figgins hit .276 with a .367 OBP and a .318 SLG in 2008 with a home run, 14 doubles and a triple in 116 games….he did swipe 34 bases and was caught 13 times. The last two seasons Figgins has totaled 116 games (2008) and 115 games (2007) after playing over 155 games in 2005 and 2006.

2008 was a down year for Figgins offensively and his last full season of 2006 (.267/.336/.376/.712 with 23 doubles, 8 triples and 9 home runs with 52 stolen bases) is comparable with his career line of .290/.356/.387/.743.

Figgins would give the Cubs another left-handed bat, but with Aramis Ramirez in the lineup he would have to shift to second base….and would that help the Cubs’ offense? Figgins has put up similar numbers to Ryan Theriot the last two years, in less games, with more stolen bases.

Orlando Hudson

Gordon Wittenmyer of the Sun-Times has brought up Orlando Hudson on several occasions this winter….and little else has surfaced about Hudson in relation to the Cubs from the mainstream media. Orlando Hudson is a free agent, one the Mets are very interested in, and would only cost the Cubs money. Hudson missed a lot of time last season with a broken wrist (placed on the DL on August 10th) after missing September and the post-season the year before with a thumb injury.

The switch hitting second baseman primarily hit in the third-hole for Arizona last season and complied a .305/.367/.450/.817 line in 107 games with 29 doubles, 3 triples and 8 home runs. Hudson has not hit in the leadoff spot since 2006 and for his career is a .222 hitter with a .300 OBP at the top of the lineup…..but in the two-hole is a different story.

In 2007 Hudson hit .289 with a .362 OBP out of the second spot in the lineup for the team with the best record in the National League….in all fairness, his best numbers came from the three-hole. In 85 games he compiled a .293 average with a .381 OBP and a .827 OPS with 20 doubles, 5 triples and 6 home runs.

Hudson would not solve the Cubs issues at the top of the order but might give Lou Piniella another option, and a switch-hitting one at that. If Piniella leaves Alfonso Soriano at the top of the lineup, Hudson could provide options for Piniella to make other changes throughout the order….or give the Cubs a more disciplined hitter behind Soriano.

Alfonso Soriano

Lou Piniella said at the end of November when asked about Alfonso Soriano being at the top of the lineup in 2009 that he “isn’t ruling out dropping Alfonso Soriano out of the leadoff spot.Piniella added, “There’s nobody else that we have on this team that leads off. We’ll see. Right now our focus is to get a big bat. If we did nothing [to add a leadoff man], I’d be very happy to have Soriano leading off.

Soriano’s line from the leadoff spot was .287/.350/.544/.894 with 29 home runs and 27 doubles. Soriano stole 19 bases, caught 3 times but is not the 40-stolen base guy they thought they were signing back in the winter of 2006.

Call it mental but for whatever reason Soriano performs best out of the leadoff spot. Many have begun to question if the Cubs can win games in the post-season with Soriano leading off, to put it simply, Soriano does not hit top of the rotation pitchers the way he should. A lot of it has to do with the fact he goes to the plate swinging but it is mostly because of all of the holes in his swing and lack of patience at the plate.

Without Soriano the past two seasons the Cubs would not have won back-to-back titles but maybe the Cubs should treat him like a faster version of Ryan Howard. When they are both on, they can carry a team but when they are both cold, it is the exact opposite.

Alfonso Soriano’s career numbers at different spots in the lineup

Reed Johnson

In April of 2007 Reed Johnson received an honorable mention from Jerry Crasnick of ESPN for being one of the top leadoff men in baseball. Jose Reyes was first and Alfonso Soriano was seventh in Crasnick’s top nine. But Johnson’s mention, just ahead of Brian Roberts, is food for thought.

Reed Johnson is a ballplayer or a gamer as Ron Santo calls him. Johnson is not the left- handed bat the Cubs are looking to add and will probably share time with Kosuke Fukudome in center. He struggled for the Cubs in the leadoff spot last season (.234/.302/.364/.666) but was learning the league. For his career, Johnson is a .288 hitter with a .350 OBP at the top of the order after posting a .322 average with a .391 OBP in his last full season (106 games in 2006) leading off games.

Johnson is probably not the answer but should be considered an option if the Cubs do not add a leadoff hitter this off-season…especially if he ends up sharing time with Kosuke in center. Fukudome posted a .276/.373/.431 line with 3 doubles and 2 home runs in 14 games hitting first for Lou Piniella last year.

Maybe Lou Piniella will think ‘outside of the box‘ this spring, mix up the lineup and find another winning combination that is more consistent against top of the rotation pitching than the one from a year ago.

Quote of the Day

"People who write about Spring Training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball." – Sandy Koufax