For the most part, the Cubs’ 2020 starting lineup is solidified.
Aside from the center field battle between Albert Almora, Jr. and Steven Souza, Jr., just about every position has been locked down, assuming Kyle Schwarber and Jayson Heyward will man the corner outfield positions. As for the infield, it starts with Willson Contreras behind the dish, Anthony Rizzo at first, Javier Baez at shortstop and Kris Bryant – for now – at third.
But who’s going to start at second base? He wasn’t expected to come back, but with Ben Zobrist’s retirement Monday afternoon, it begs the question of who will start in the place he’s so consistently held for years.
Will it be Chicago’s No. 1 prospect, Nico Hoerner, who showed out in his limited time at The Show last year? Or will it be an established veteran in Jason Kipnis, who made two All-Star rosters in his nine seasons in Cleveland? Or will it be a smaller, more boring, yet reliable name like David Bote, Ian Happ or Daniel Descalso?
There’s pros and cons to each of them, some more than the other. I’ll briefly go through those for each option and give my prediction for what their roles could look like in 2020.
There’s plenty to like about Hoerner. His speed, fielding prowess and base-running ability make him an X-Factor type of player if he can get on base at a respectable clip.
In his limited action last year, Hoerner hit a respectable .282 wit 17 RBI in 20 games played. Solid numbers, without a doubt. But he only got on base at a .305 clip, drawing just three walks in 82 plate appearances.
Hoerner could very well be the Cubs’ leadoff hitter of the future, but he has to drastically up his on base percentage. Something that shows promise with that, however, is his low 13.4 percent strikeout rate. He’s proved he can put the ball in play, and with his speed, make even ground balls non-guaranteed outs.
So far this spring, Hoerner has shown some serious signs of improvement in the on-base department. While he only has two extra-base hits in 35 plate appearances, he’s hitting a very impressive .310 and has walked two more times than he did in his 82 Major-League plate appearances in 2019. His on-base percentage sits at a hefty .429 through 12 games, which is even more impressive considering he’s dropped his already-impressive strikeout percentage to 11.4 percent.
If Hoerner continues down this path for the rest of Spring Training, there’s a very good chance the 22-year-old will pair up with Baez in the middle-infield – a unit that could possibly be the best-fielding pair in baseball.
Kipnis is by far the biggest name of the bunch.
He’s been one of the better power-hitting second basemen in the League since his 2011 rookie season, averaging about 15 home runs per full-season played.
There was an argument to be made that he was one of the premier second-basemen in all of baseball from 2012-2016, where he made two All-Star games and made it into the Most Valuable Player voting twice. Kipnis hit .272, 69 home runs and 335 RBI in those five seasons – including a 2016 campaign where he hit .275 with 23 long-balls.
If manager David Ross aims for a more powerful lineup, Kipnis may be the option. However, I don’t see him being reliable as an everyday player. He looks like more of a platoon option, starting against right-handed pitchers from time to time. Kipnis can still take you yard, but he’s been regressing the past three seasons both at the plate (.236 AVG, .403 SLG in 2017-19) and in the field.
Still, I expect him to make the opening day roster because of the impact he can make in the clubhouse. Ross has been a proponent for guys like that, as he was one of them towards the tail end of his career. Plus, if Kipnis can see some kind of career resurgence by changing scenery, his one-year, $1 million contract could turn into one of the best in the league.
Bote will always be remembered for his famous two-out, three-run-deficit, walk-off grand slam against the Nationals in August of 2018. Still in my mind, that’s a top-10 moment in Wrigley Field history – not that there were many positive ones for damn-near a century.
Bote was somewhat of a platoon player in 2019, earning 356 plate appearances – a little over half the expected total for an everyday starter. He upped his output and proved to have some solid pop, nabbing 11 homers and accruing an on base plus slugging percentage (OPS) of .785.
So far this spring, Bote’s continued his progression as a reliable bat. It’s tough to tell if this is really who he is considering he only has 29 plate appearances thus far, but his slash line of a .333 batting average, .448 on base percentage and .375 slugging percentage (total of a very impressive .823 OPS) is one of the most eye-popping lines on the team.
He only has one extra-base-hit to his credit thus far, but again, he’s only 29 plate appearances in. The power will come. I wouldn’t be shocked at all to see him and Hoerner split time at second base this season, with Bote bringing the power and discipline and Hoerner with the fielding and athleticism.
If the two continue to hit above .300 and show great discipline at the plate, Ross will have a very difficult decision to make on who to start at second. Then again, there’s much worse problems a manager can have.
Happ, much like Bote, provides some serious pop at the second base position.
A rare trait to have for any middle-infielder, and we saw what kind of production he could provide given a near-everyday role in 2018 where Happ hit .233, slugged 15 homers and drove in 44. Not the most productive season by any means, but he’s an intriguing option seeing as he already has three years of Major League experience and hit 11 home runs last year in just 156 plate appearances (about a 40 home-run pace for a whole season).
I personally don’t see him starting at any position full-time for the Cubs this year, but that doesn’t mean we won’t see a healthy dose of Happ. He’s skilled enough to play every infield position, as well as the corner-outfield spots when Schwarber or Heyward need a day off. Expect him to platoon at middle-infield and corner-outfield for about half to two-thirds of Chicago’s games this season, providing some nice power as a switch-hitter.
I don’t see Descalso in the running for a starter at second base whatsoever, but what he can be is a very reliable veteran backup.
He’s entering his 11th year in the MLB, most of which he’s served as a reserve middle-infielder. While Descalso hasn’t hit above .240 in four of his past five seasons, that’s not why he makes rosters.
I do see him on the outskirts of making the Cubs’ opening day roster, especially with his .130 batting average in Spring Training thus far, but that’s not to say there isn’t a spot on the roster for a sure-handed fielder subbing in the latter innings as a defensive specialist. As of now though, there’s slim to no chance he ends up starting over Hoerner, Kipnis, Bote or Happ.