Cubs lineup taking shape: Zobrist or Bryant to bat 3? Schwarber or Soler in LF?

LAS VEGAS -- We can stop speculating.

Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon has nearly decided on his batting order for Opening Day on Monday against the Los Angeles Angels. With the use of the designated hitter, Maddon can send forth one of the most devastating lineups (at least on paper) the Cubs have employed in years.

“I’m still slightly debating (Ben) Zobrist versus (Kris) Bryant in the No. 3 hole,” Maddon said Friday before his team played the New York Mets in an exhibition game. “That’s it.”

The one other issue comes down to Kyle Schwarber or Jorge Soler in left field with the other taking the DH role.

“Still haven’t decided 100 percent Schwarber/Soler DH or left, but obviously they’re in there,” Maddon stated.

Before examining all the options, let’s look at the likely batting order for Monday:

Dexter Fowler, CF

Jason Heyward, RF

Zobrist/Bryant, 2b/3b

Anthony Rizzo, 1b

Zobrist/Bryant, 2b/3b

Kyle Schwarber, LF/DH

Jorge Soler, LF/DH

Miguel Montero, C

Addison Russell, SS

Now let’s remember it’s like splitting hairs coming up with the “right” order with so many good hitters. But there is little doubt Maddon’s lineup looks less conventional with Zobrist batting third. If it were to last the whole season he would undoubtedly get more at-bats than MVP candidates Rizzo and Bryant. Maddon gets that.

“But swinging well and providing protection, not everyone gets that,” Maddon stated.

And Maddon has indicated often during the spring that he wouldn’t mind loading up his three on-base guys in Fowler, Heyward and Zobrist to “feed” Rizzo and Bryant.

Analysis: I’m starting to buy in. Think about it. How many times will Fowler, Heyward and Zobrist bat in an inning without at least one getting on base? I bet not often. Let’s take the first inning of every game. Of course they’ll go down in order here and there, but many, many times one or more will get on. That means automatically Rizzo and perhaps Bryant will bat with at least one base runner on in the first inning. It may offset the fact that Zobrist will get a few more at-bats overall.

Then again, if a game ends with Rizzo or Bryant in the on-deck circle, Maddon might change his mind quickly.

“You can always make an adjustment,” Maddon said. “Whatever you do the first couple of days, you might see something differently or like better, you just do it. There are nice choices.”

Soler or Schwarber in LF: The more interesting aspect of the lineup revolves around Soler. If he was living up to expectations, there would be no debate over who plays left field, right? Wasn’t Schwarber the guy who botched balls in left in the NLCS? Isn’t he a catcher by trade while Soler can run like a deer and possesses one of the best arms in the game?

But if the spring is any indication, Soler can’t track a fly ball any better in left than he did in right while Schwarber has shown progress. It should be embarrassing to Soler that his manager is even considering him to DH come Monday. And it adds a little more to Schwarber’s plate as he’s already dealing with catching and playing outfield most of the season. Shouldn’t he get the break when they play in AL parks?

To add insult to injury, at the very end of Maddon's lineup conversation with reporters, he didn't dismiss the notion of starting lefty Tommy La Stella on Monday instead of Soler. La Stella is hot right now and much less likely to pinch-hit in an American League park so he's not needed off the bench. It says a lot about Soler's status on the team if not only he doesn't play left field but doesn't even start in a game where the designated hitter is needed. The fact that the thought has crossed Maddon's mind is bad enough, even though he's leaning toward playing Soler.