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Schwarber a powerful option in leadoff spot

Slugger has exceptional eye at plate and is strong baserunner @philgrogers

Dexter Fowler's gone, and he's not coming back to Wrigley Field -- well, except when the Cardinals play there.

While the Cubs are a team that seemingly has everything, do they have a leadoff hitter to take Fowler's place?

Dexter Fowler's gone, and he's not coming back to Wrigley Field -- well, except when the Cardinals play there.

While the Cubs are a team that seemingly has everything, do they have a leadoff hitter to take Fowler's place?

That's one of the few questions remaining now that they've traded for Wade Davis to fill the hole that Aroldis Chapman left behind.

It's a big question, however. The Cubs were 80-38 with Fowler as the leadoff man last season and 23-20 with anyone else there. He delivered an .842 OPS, which ranked eighth best in the Major Leagues among 33 players with at least 300 plate appearances as the leadoff man.

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But the Cubs should be OK without Fowler. After all, they have a guy who could be the most productive No. 1 hitter in baseball next season.

He's got a career on-base percentage of .353 -- and a .451 OBP in 14 postseason games. He's not as fast as Fowler, so he won't be viewed as the same kind of threat as Fowler when he gets on base. But when they played together in 2015, he was judged to be one of the team's best baserunners -- even better than Fowler -- by Bill James' metrics.

We're talking about Kyle Schwarber, the heavyweight left fielder, and we're not the only ones.

Cubs manager Joe Maddon mentioned Schwarber as a possibility to lead off when he met with reporters at the Winter Meetings last week.

"Schwarber is not a bad name,'' Maddon said. "Kyle is not a bad name at all. … Actually, a couple years ago, I considered leading Kyle off and putting Dexter second. But all our nerds did all the work and they really liked Fowler one and liked Schwarber two, just based on the data, so I went with that and it worked out well. Now, all of the sudden, Dexter is not there anymore. It's not impossible to consider Kyle in that spot.''

Video: Schwarber to focus on defense in Spring Training

Maddon isn't kidding, even if lots of fans roll their eyes at the thought of the 6-foot, 235-pound Schwarber filling Fowler's shoes. He's on to something.

After a lot of thought and a little bit of study, I'm convinced Schwarber can succeed as a leadoff hitter -- assuming his left knee recovers completely from the ugly injury that sidelined him until the World Series. If he can run like he did as a rookie in 2015 -- with the instincts and aggressiveness to force the action -- he could join Kris Bryant (and Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist) in scoring 100-plus runs.

There have been oversized leadoff men before.

Grady Sizemore comes to mind. He isn't built as thickly as Schwarber, but he was listed at 6-foot-2 and 205 pounds when he hit 33 homers and stole 38 bases in 2008. Sizemore ran well enough to be a running back -- or maybe even a Jeff Samardzija-style wide receiver -- not, like Schwarber, a linebacker.

Schwarber has the best strike-zone judgment on the Cubs. His discipline has been in place since he was a freshman at Indiana University (he had more walks than strikeouts in each of his three years as a Hoosier). Schwarber would get on base plenty in front of Bryant, Rizzo and Zobrist.

Video: Kyle Schwarber discusses Joey Votto's approach

If the knee injury doesn't change the dynamic too much, Schwarber would be just fine scoring from second on singles or from first on doubles. In the 69 games he played in 2015, Schwarber rated a +9 in James' rankings of baserunners. Fowler was a +8. Bryant (+18) and Chris Coghlan (+14) were the only Cubs rated as better baserunners than Schwarber, and he might have caught them if he hadn't played 75 games between Double-A and Triple-A.

While Zobrist and newly acquired center fielder Jon Jay might look more like leadoff men than Schwarber, neither rates as highly as a baserunner.

If the Cubs still had Fowler, they probably would have hit Schwarber second, Bryant third, Rizzo fourth and Zobrist fifth. This assumes Maddon can find a way to get Zobrist 500 plate appearances with Javier Baez playing more and Schwarber back, but that's a topic for another day.

Would the Cubs waste Schwarber's power in the leadoff spot? That's a worthwhile question given that he has homered every 13.3 at-bats in the Major Leagues, postseason games included.

Schwarber could join Bryant and Rizzo in hitting 30-plus home runs over a full season, and you don't want 25 of them to be solo homers. So maybe Maddon does what he did in 2015 -- batting his pitcher eighth and then his center fielder (Albert Almora Jr. or Jay) ninth, where the manager often batted Addison Russell as a rookie.

This wouldn't be the first time Maddon went against conventional wisdom with his leadoff hitter. John Jaso got 169 at-bats in the No. 1 spot for the 2010 Rays, and first baseman Carlos Pena was there for 10 games in '12.

Few players generate such a variety of opinions as Schwarber. He looked lost at sea in left field in Games 3 and 4 of the 2015 National League Championship Series, and some people can't get those games out of their heads. Just the other day, Billy Ripken said on MLB Network that he thinks Schwarber is an American League-type player.

But Theo Epstein's belief in Schwarber is complete. Epstein trusts that Schwarber can do anything he sets out to do, including play a solid left field at Wrigley.

Video: CHC@STL Gm1: Schwarber makes a nice running catch

It's not out of the question that Schwarber may eventually move between left field and catcher the way rookie Willson Contreras did last season, as that would make it easier to carve out more playing time for Zobrist, Jason Heyward and the other hitters on their way to Wrigley (top prospects Ian Happ, Mark Zagunis and Eloy Jimenez, most notably).

No decision has been made on whether Schwarber will try to catch this spring. It will probably depend on how healthy he is in early February, and if catching presents an increased re-injury risk.

My guess is Schwarber will catch again, even if he is used exclusively in the outfield next year. Knee injuries don't have to be career killers/position changers for catchers. Carlton Fisk caught 100-plus games a year into his early 40s after a devastating knee injury in a home-plate collision in 1974, when he was 26.

But the question on the table is whether Maddon is serious about using Schwarber as a leadoff man.

Trust me, he's serious.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for

Chicago Cubs, Kyle Schwarber