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Who is the best option to lead off for the Cubs?

Someone’s gotta replace Dexter Fowler at the top of the lineup.

MLB: World Series-Chicago Cubs at Cleveland Indians
Chicago Cubs left fielder Kyle Schwarber
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

With the possible exception of the Dodgers, no team enters 2017 with as few question marks as the Chicago Cubs. That’s a perk of being the defending world champions, after all. Unless you went on a Marlins-style fire sale over the offseason, you’ll almost always have a ton of talent coming back.

That is not to say the Cubs — or any other team, for that matter — are devoid of questions. For as good as they are, the Cubs aren’t perfect. We still don’t have a good handle on who will be their fifth starter, for example, and it’s unclear what their plan is for center field.

Speaking of center field, the departure of Dexter Fowler to the rival Cardinals opens up a spot not just in the field, but in the lineup. And because whoever replaces Fowler — likely some combination of Jon Jay and Albert Almora — is unlikely to be a strong enough hitter to justify it, the Cubs are looking for a replacement at the top of the lineup.

After how well Fowler performed in that spot a year ago, those are big shoes to fill.

But because of that aforementioned depth, the Cubs have plenty of plausible options. A few — Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, and (please don’t close this tab) Jason Heyward — stand out above the rest, however, so let’s take them one at a time and see why or why not they might be the best fit to leadoff for Chicago.

Kyle Schwarber

Why he makes sense:

Schwarber as the Cubs’ potential leadoff hitter has been one of the most fun storylines of the offseason, if for no other reason than it would solve the mystery of “What would it look like if a slab of brisket hit first?”

This is probably something that works only against right-handers, but if you clicked on the link above, you know that that’s precisely how Joe Maddon would plan to handle it.

The reason why he’d be a good fit here is obvious: Aside from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Schwarber is probably the Cubs’ best hitter. With those two entrenched in the two- and three-spot, it makes sense to bat Schwarber leadoff when he has the platoon advantage in order to maximize his number of at-bats.

Plus, as the most double-play prone of the three players we’re discussing, the Cubs could mitigate Schwarber’s lack of speed somewhat by having him lead off games.

Why he doesn’t make sense

Speaking of that lack of speed, Schwarber is also a poor baserunner, as we saw in the World Series.

Zobrist is not exactly Billy Hamilton on the basepaths, either — in fact, both Steamer and PECOTA project him as a worse baserunner than Schwarber — but he is better than Schwarber at the skill most desirable in a leadoff batter: the ability to get on base.

Ben Zobrist

Why he makes sense:

On that note, here is a comparison of Zobrist, Schwarber and Heyward’s OBP from the last three season, as well as their 2017 PECOTA projected OBP:

Cubs’ Leadoff Options OBP

Name 2014-2016 2017
Name 2014-2016 2017
Schwarber 0.353* 0.346
Zobrist 0.367 0.353
Heyward 0.339 0.336

*Schwarber didn’t make his major-league debut until June 2015 and missed almost all of 2016.

Obviously, OBP isn’t the be-all, end-all for a leadoff hitter, but if the goal is for that guy to get on base as often as possible so Chicago’s best hitters can drive him in, Zobrist is probably the best option under that mindset.

After hitting cleanup the majority of last season, it’s definitely tempting to move Zobrist up to first and have Schwarber take his place.

Why he doesn’t make sense:

The argument against Zobrist is basically the same as the argument for Schwarber. By pretty much any catch-all metric, Zobrist is not one of the Cubs’ three best hitters, as good as he is:

Cubs Five Best Hitters Projections

Name wRC+ (Steamer) OPS+ (ZiPS) wOBA (ZiPS) TAv (PECOTA)
Name wRC+ (Steamer) OPS+ (ZiPS) wOBA (ZiPS) TAv (PECOTA)
Rizzo 139 145 0.386 0.302
Bryant 134 138 0.380 0.312
Schwarber 124 125 0.357 0.288
Zobrist 113 106 0.341 0.275
Contreras 106 113 0.335 0.280

Hell, if you’re just going by the “give your best hitters the most at-bats” approach and you’re really into True Average, then you’d be better off hitting Willson Contreras in the leadoff spot than Zobrist.

Jason Heyward

Why he makes sense:

Let’s suspend our disbelief here for a second and pretend that the Jason Heyward we’re getting is not the one we saw in 2016, but rather the six-win player he was with the Cardinals in 2015. How would that player compare to Schwarber and Zobrist’s ZiPS projections?

Heyward’s 2015 vs. Schwarber & Zobrist’s 2017 Projections

Name OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ BsR
Name OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ BsR
Heyward '15 0.359 0.439 9.2% 14.8% 120 7.0
Schwarber '17 0.353 0.490 11.3% 23.5% 124 0.7
Zobrist '17 0.365 0.426 12.8% 13.3% 113 -0.6

It’s a little tougher to decide, right? He’d get on base less and strike out more than Zobrist, and he’d be a worse hitter than Schwarber. But he’d be only a slightly worse hitter than Schwarber and get on base slightly less than Zobrist, and he’d be a much better baserunner than either.

If you’re getting the best version of each of these players, you could easily make a case that Heyward would be the best choice to replace Fowler at the top of the lineup.

Why he doesn’t make sense:

It’s obviously tough to predict Heyward to come out on Opening Day and have all of his problems solved. Let’s sub out Heyward’s 2015 from above and plug in his 2017 Steamer projections to throw a little cold water on ourselves:

Heyward, Schwarber, Zobrist 2017 Steamer Projections

Name OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ BsR
Name OBP SLG BB% K% wRC+ BsR
Heyward '17 0.348 0.415 10.2% 15.6% 106 1.6
Schwarber '17 0.353 0.490 11.3% 23.5% 124 0.7
Zobrist '17 0.365 0.426 12.8% 13.3% 113 -0.6

Better than last year, obviously, but even with all that improvement, he’s not a realistic option to lead off. And, of course, it’s no guarantee that he even gets back to what Steamer is projecting him for.

Final Verdict

The Cubs’ real-life leadoff plan — Schwarber vs. righties, Zobrist vs. lefties — appears to be the right one. It allows them to maximize their platoon advantage and get their best hitters as many at-bats as possible.

Just don’t rule out Heyward, though. He obviously won’t start out the season leading off — that would be unfair on multiple levels — and there’s no guarantee he’s able to get his swing back. But (and it’s a big “but”) if his offseason swing changes allow him to regain his previous form, he may be the Cubs’ best option come October.

Either way, there is an embarrassment of riches in Chicago, and this is an excellent problem to have. For most teams, there would be no replacing Dexter Fowler. For the Cubs, it’s deciding which of their replacements fit best.