Ross eyes offensive spark with lineup tweaks

April 8th, 2021

The Cubs have not been shy about experimenting with their starting lineups.

Through the first six games of the season, first baseman Anthony Rizzo, third baseman Kris Bryant, shortstop Javier Báez and right fielder Jason Heyward are the only four Chicago position players who have started every game. Part of that is manager David Ross making sure to get his starters some rest and get his bench guys some at-bats.

At the same time, the lineups Ross has trotted out haven’t had a ton of success. According to ESPN Stats and Info, the Cubs’ .124 team batting average is the second-worst mark through six games since 1900, with only the 2013 Pirates (.119) getting off to a worse start.

Considering how poorly the team has performed at the plate, the lineup changes could also just be Ross trying to spark some life into his offense.

“I think it's a mix,” Ross said. “We're always looking to put the best lineup out there to give us the chance to win that day. I think looking at matchup stuff and where the guys fit in and trying to get them to play, I think that's something that you never stop doing.”

Catcher Willson Contreras was plugged in as the leadoff hitter for Thursday's series opener in Pittsburgh. Though it’s not the first time Contreras has hit leadoff this season -- and Ross said Contreras was “all for it” -- it’s still an example of the kind of tinkering Ross has had to do with the lineup.

Chicago has been searching for an everyday leadoff man since Dexter Fowler left following the 2016 World Series. Former manager Joe Maddon toyed with using Rizzo, Bryant and even former left fielder Kyle Schwarber in the top spot.

Ross has had to do the same since taking over the team last season. Even though center fielder Ian Happ is typically the leadoff hitter, Ross said he needs to make sure everyone on the team stays fresh, including the bench players, which is why Jake Marisnick started the Pittsburgh series in center with Contreras setting the table up top.

"I've thought it's been good, for me personally, to be able to get some at-bats early and get rolling,” Marisnick said after Monday’s 5-3 win over the Brewers. “I mean, the way these other guys have handled it, it's been awesome. I'm so happy to be here and I'm happy to be around these guys. Rossy's done a great job of keeping guys involved. That's a big part of -- once we get further into the season -- keeping everybody involved is a big part. And he's doing an amazing job at it."

It’s tough to keep the starters out there every game while also making sure everyone gets the necessary rest, especially while teams are adjusting back to a regular schedule following the shortened 2020 season. In order to give his players a break and also find something that works at the plate, expect Ross to keep shifting around the lineup.

Worth noting
• The Cubs have not yet hit the 85% vaccination threshold to loosen COVID-19 restrictions. Clubs were informed just before Opening Day that MLB and the MLBPA have agreed to relax certain health and safety protocols contained in the 2021 Operations Manual for fully vaccinated Tier 1 Individuals and for clubs where 85% of their Tier 1 Individuals are fully vaccinated. As part of that memo, players and staff were again strongly encouraged to receive one of the approved COVID-19 vaccines when eligible.

Ross did not divulge where the Cubs numbers were at as of Thursday morning, but he said the team is still working to educate everyone involved and then let them make their own decisions.

“There's just a lot of reasons that guys are hesitant, and I respect their thoughts and their stance,” Ross said. “We just try to continue to give them the right information, find them the research to help them make the best decision for us, as a team, and them in their life and their careers.”

• Cubs first-base coach Craig Driver is under the weather and did not travel with the team to Pittsburgh as a precaution, according to the team's public relations staff. Mike Napoli, Chicago's quality assurance coach, will handle first-base duties in Driver's absence. Both Driver and Napoli joined Ross' staff prior to the 2020 season.