CHICAGO -- Saturday rainouts are a sad thing at Wrigley Field. There is always a big-event feel to Saturday afternoon game in Wrigleyville, whether or not the Chicago Cubs are any good. That’s especially the case now that they are really good.
That was certainly the feel on Saturday, even with the cool weather, gray sky and ominous forecast on everybody’s mind. Hours before Saturday’s washout of a game scheduled against surging Milwaukee Brewers, fans lined up at every gate hoping to get a Bryzzo bobblehead, and they remained there even once the skies opened up.
Alas, the game was bagged, the gates never opened, and the fans went back from whence they came. (Perhaps to return on July 6, when the makeup date -- complete with the Bryzzo bobblehead giveaway -- will be played.
“Nothing we can do about it,” Cubs manager Joe Maddon said -- about the washout, not the fans. “That’s why we’re here to embrace the suck. Are you going to cry about it?”
If the game had been played, we would have seen a juggled Cubs lineup.
There are a couple of different storylines addressed by the configuration put together by Maddon. First, here it is, or was, since there is no guarantee that this will be a common ordering for Maddon going forward: 1. Ben Zobrist, 2B; 2. Kyle Schwarber, LF; 3. Kris Bryant, 3B; 4. Anthony Rizzo, 1B; 5. Ian Happ, CF; 6. Jason Heyward, RF; 7. Willson Contreras, C; 8. Addison Russell, SS; 9. Jake Arrieta, P.
“What I was looking at there was a couple of things,” Maddon said. “First, Zo has been really good lately. We gave him a couple of days off, and he has come out of it real nicely. And Happ is the new Zobrist. In other words, he can protect Rizzo.”
Zobrist has hit leadoff from time to time during his career. He did so quite a few times during the days he and Maddon shared in Tampa Bay with the Rays.
On one hand, Zobrist makes sense as a leadoff guy. He’s ultra-patient and typically puts up a high on-base percentage, but he also has the pop to start off a game with a bang. Ironically though, the leadoff slot has never been great for Zobrist -- his .329 career OBP there is his lowest in any spot one 1 through 8.
Still, the bigger news about this lineup card is that it dropped Schwarber into the two-hole. With Schwarber struggling, his presence atop an underachieving Cubs lineup has been widely debated in recent days in a way that it wouldn’t if Schwarber were built like Willie Wilson.
Still, in moving Schwarber down, Maddon wasn’t so much raising a white flag on using him as a leadoff guy. It was more a calculated move based on Schwarber’s ailing average on balls in play, which, at .226, ranks 170th out of 184 qualifying players across baseball. This is despite a well-hit average (.176) that ranks 71st.
“We’ve talked a lot about Kyle hitting balls into the shift,” Maddon said. “If in fact Zo can get on a little bit more often, it might move that second baseman out of that spot. I don’t know. It might.”
Indeed, only eight big leaguers have faced more shifts so far this season than Schwarber, who has seen them 119 times, according to TruMedia. His total of 23 at-bats affected by shifts also ranks ninth.
However, before we consider Maddon’s notion a potential stroke of genius, consider that one of the players who has faced more shifts than Schwarber is Rizzo, who has seen 130 of them but has been affected by those shifts just 12 times.
“You look at Schwarber’s batting average, and even Anthony’s,” Maddon said, “a lot of that is impacted by the shift.”
Anyway, Maddon wasn’t ruling Schwarber out of returning to the top slot.
The other piece of intrigue from the washed-out lineup was the presence of both the rookie Happ and the veteran Heyward in it.
Technically, Heyward is still on the disabled list, where he has been since May 8 because of a sprained finger. However, it had already been reported that Heyward would be activated Saturday. What was not reported was who would be sent down, and many figured it would be Happ, a high-level prospect with just a few days of service time under his belt.
Instead, Happ was in the lineup, and while the Cubs didn’t announce any official moves because of the rainout, infielder Tommy LaStella was not in the clubhouse, and his locker had been cleaned out. All of this suggests that the Cubs feel pretty good about what they’ve seen from Happ, who has hit .333/.462/.714 in his first six games, batting cleanup in four of them.
“(Happ) has done a really good job, at the plate, on defense, running the bases,” Maddon said. “He’s done a really nice job. A big part of it is, like a lot of our guys, he’s not overwhelmed. That’s probably the most impressive part of it.”
This storyline is tied to the other one, which Maddon alluded to: Happ’s emergence has convinced Maddon that he can provide the lineup protection he wants behind Rizzo, which in turn frees up Zobrist to bat first.
“Happ being here pretty much permits me to think that way,” Maddon said. “And the fact that he’s done so well. I was always concerned about Zo leaving that spot. Imagine that today, if I put Zo up there and Happ wasn’t there behind, what that would look like. I wouldn’t feel as a good about it. A lot of different little moving parts.”
And, thus, a deep lineup gets that much deeper.
“I’m just happy to be in the lineup again,” said Happ, who already deflects questions like a grizzled veteran. He also offered up a straight-faced, “I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
With both of Saturday’s pitchers -- Chicago’s Arrieta and Milwaukee’s Chase Anderson -- pushed back to Sunday, it’s entirely possible or even likely that we’ll actually get to see this new Cubs lineup in action on Sunday. But whether that happens, you have to wonder if this will be a common Cubs configuration going forward. That wouldn’t be great news for outfielders Jon Jay or Albert Almora.
Still, this kind of subtle evolution should be expected of a club that, as we keep reminding you, is still quite young.