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Joe Maddon knows one thing about his batting order: Protection is key

MESA, Ariz. -- It’s been an ongoing discussion with Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon throughout the spring: How will he construct his batting order to maximize a very talented group of hitters once the regular season begins?

We’re starting to get some answers as spring training begins to wind down -- albeit not all of them. One thing is clear, though: Maddon will return the pitcher to the 9-hole on most occasions. He doesn’t believe shortstop Addison Russell is in need of protection anymore, though he wholeheartedly believes in the idea of it.

“The part about batting order that people don’t believe in but I do, is protection,” Maddon said Wednesday. “It’s hard to evaluate protection and what that means.

“That’s the one part we’re lagging when you talk about sabermetrics, how do you protect people? The human component of this whole thing.”

The other aspect of lineup construction Maddon believes in is “feeding” his sluggers. On Tuesday he had Dexter Fowler, Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist batting 1-2-3 leading into Anthony Rizzo and Kris Bryant. Those top three represent the Cubs' best on-base guys who aren't necessarily sluggers.

Some fans aren’t buying it, but Zobrist could be the No. 3 hitter next month, at least some of the time.

“When we did Chris [Coghlan] in the 3-hole last year we were like 12-0,” Maddon stated. “I would imagine nobody wanted us to do that but it played pretty well.”

The issue, of course, is players such as Fowler and Zobrist potentially getting many more at-bats then Rizzo or Bryant. Maddon understands the dilemma.

“People are going to talk about number of more times a guy is going to come to the plate in a season if he’s hitting in this spot compared to that spot,” he said. “It’s easy to say I want Bryant to get more at-bats. Or Rizzo. Of course that’s an easy thought, but I like to feed these guys too and like to protect them.”

Maddon said there are many different factors involved in batting order construction, from who the opposing pitcher is and who’s hot among his own players. One thing is clear though; he doesn’t have answers yet.

“I don’t know,” Maddon said several times. “When I tell you 'I don’t know' I really mean that. I’m getting all this different information. All this stuff matters. I don’t care what anyone else thinks. It matters.”

Maddon discussed going against conventional thinking when it comes to his best hitters. He’s not even sure No. 3 or No. 4 are the best spots in the order for his premier hitters.

“The one thing I do believe in is (if) the third hitter comes up with two outs and nobody on so why would you want to put your best hitter there?” Maddon asked rhetorically. “And then No. 4 leads off the inning with no one base.

“All these conversations are based on lore as much as anything else.”

Maddon will undoubtedly use more than one lineup in the opening week considering that the Cubs can utilize the designated hitter for two games before returning to National League competition. But more than anything he’ll be asking "Who needs the most protection?"

“I’m just telling you from our dugout it means a lot based on who’s hitting behind someone that’s prolific,” he reiterated.