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Inbox: Will leadoff Rizzo make a comeback?

@MLBastian
January 24, 2020

The question came near the end of an hour-long panel between fans and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at Cubs Convention last weekend. Following inquiries about Chicago's quiet winter, the state of the payroll and a variety of other topics centering on this offseason and a critical 2020

The question came near the end of an hour-long panel between fans and Cubs president of baseball operations Theo Epstein at Cubs Convention last weekend.

Following inquiries about Chicago's quiet winter, the state of the payroll and a variety of other topics centering on this offseason and a critical 2020 campaign, a young fan stepped up to the microphone and cut through all the noise. His question was simple: What type of player would the Cubs like to acquire in a perfect world?

Some laughter spread throughout the audience at the Sheraton Grand Chicago ballroom. Epstein, who had felt the angst of the crowd for the previous 45 minutes, cracked a smile.

"Well," Epstein began, "the 230-inning, No. 1 starter, ace workhorse, is always an attractive option. So is the dynamic leadoff hitter who gets on base, steals bases, hits home runs and sets the tone of the lineup. The MVP candidate-type player."

The older fans in the room -- the ones beyond the innocence of childhood and with a firmer grip on the realities of baseball as a business -- chuckled collectively.

"So," continued Epstein, still smiling, "either one of those two things."

Here is this week's Cubs Inbox.

Will Anthony Rizzo, The Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time, be back at the top of the lineup this season? What is David Ross planning for that role as the Cubs' new manager?
-- Bob V., Chicago

I'll defer to Rizzo for this one.

Prior to the Cubs Convention festivities, Rizzo held a charity event in Chicago. During a chat with a handful of reporters that evening, the first baseman was asked if he would lobby Ross to be in the leadoff spot.

"That will be something I will not be lobbying for in the early going," Rizzo said. "But, you know, we'll see. We'll see how that plays out. Obviously, I've done well hitting leadoff, but I truly love hitting third and fourth. But, whatever Rossy comes up with, I'm obviously all-in with."

Rizzo's a team guy, but if his preference is to stay in the heart of the order at the start of the season, it's a safe bet that Ross will accommodate his veteran leader. His numbers out of the No. 1 slot sure are scintillating, though.

In a dozen games as the leadoff man last year, Rizzo hit .410/.500/.667 in 46 plate appearances. For his career, he's slashed .335/.426/.602 in 244 PAs in the No. 1 slot. His slugging percentage and OPS (1.028) are both ranked first all-time among players with a minimum of 200 PAs in the leadoff spot.

Asked his thoughts on the order, Ross said last weekend that he has been "looking at that heavily," and bouncing ideas off the Cubs' analytics department. Right now, the new manager does not have a solid answer. Nico Hoerner might grow into that role, but maybe not out of the chute. Kyle Schwarber is an option, but he has fared much better deeper in the lineup. Javier Báez would certainly be an interesting departure from traditional thoughts on that slot.

"We won't know until the end of March when we get ready to head up to Milwaukee," Ross said. "Definitely, that is an area that I've focused on the most, and trying to see what that looks like. I don't have that picture yet, and I don't think any of us rightfully would be able to say that that's something we can strongly feel one way or another yet."

I can't be the only one that finds it troubling that Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks are the only two starters under full control after this season (depending on Jon Lester's option for 2021). Is young, controllable pitching going to be the focus of any trades?
-- @AaronWilder17, via Twitter

Internally, the Cubs have a few interesting arms coming. Adbert Alzolay and Alec Mills might impact the rotation as soon as this season, and highly regarded prospect Brailyn Marquez looks ticketed for Double-A this year. And, yes, if the Cubs do pull off any major trades involving core players -- either before Opening Day or at the July 31 Trade Deadline -- you can bet that reeling in young, controllable pitching will be a priority.

Cubs' Top 30 Prospects list

Could Nico Hoerner be the Cubs' regular second baseman and leadoff hitter this year?
-- @RustaRow, via Twitter

The Cubs will be taking a close look at Hoerner's approach within plate appearances this spring. He was especially aggressive in his first taste of the Majors in September, so getting back to better plate discipline will be important for him in 2020. Hoerner will definitely be in the mix for the vacancy at second, along with David Bote. As noted earlier, Hoerner has the potential to be a leadoff hitter, but that might be a reality more down the road.

Which of all the split-contract relievers the Cubs have signed this offseason is most likely to emerge as an eighth-inning guy?
-- @Cams322Mike, via Twitter

Out of the gates, I'd expect Rowan Wick and Kyle Ryan to work the eighth inning. If Tyler Chatwood winds up in the bullpen, he could be an interesting late-inning arm, too. One offseason addition I'm intrigued by is Dan Winkler. It wasn't that long ago that he was a key part of Atlanta's bullpen, and the Cubs probably have some ideas about how to get more out of his cutter-fastball-curve mix. It will be interesting to see what individual projects Chicago's staff has this spring with the pile of relief options they've added to the fold.

Cubs to spend ST piecing together 'pen puzzle

Which member of the bullpen is ready for a breakout season?
-- @thipsher85, via Twitter

I feel like the answer to this question annually is right-hander Dillon Maples. He has a hard fastball and one of the game's elite sliders. Maples' average four-seam spin rate (2,889 rpm) and slider spin rate (3,024 rpm) ranked first and fifth, respectively, in MLB in 2019 (min. 50 results). If he gets his command in order, there remains a lot of potential there. I think one of Maples, James Norwood or Duane Underwood Jr. take a big step forward for the Cubs this year.

What’s the latest news on the Marquee Sports Network?
-- Ken D.

Cubs' 2020 TV roster boasts plenty of depth

To date, about 40 percent of households in the Cubs' home territory will have carriage of Marquee. At Cubs Convention, Crane Kenney, the team's president of business operations, said the negotiations with Comcast, as well as the major streaming services, were ongoing. The network will be up and running on Feb. 22, starting with the Cubs' Cactus League game against the A's.

Jordan Bastian covers the Cubs for MLB.com. He previously covered the Indians from 2011-18 and the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian and follow him on Twitter @MLBastian.