It’s not hyperbole to say Dexter Fowler may be the most important leadoff hitter in the long history of the Chicago Cubs.
Other past leadoff hitters have arguments, too. But Fowler was the leadoff man when the Cubs won not just the biggest championship in franchise history, but the biggest championship in Major League Baseball history.
In that 2016 season, which ended with the Cubs hoisting their first World Series trophy in 108 years, Fowler had a career year, posting his highest single-season wRC+ (129) and fWAR (4.1). As the team’s leadoff hitter in all but five of his plate appearances that year, he combined a chase rate that ranked in the 99th percentile of the league (per Statcast) with an on-base percentage (.393) that’s still the 13th-highest mark among batters with at least 500 plate appearances out of the leadoff spot in a single season since 2002 (per FanGraphs).
Fowler was the perfect option to set the table at the perfect time for the Cubs, and he stamped that idea home by starting Game 7 of that year’s World Series with a leadoff homer for the ages.
“I was on cloud nine after I hit that ball,” Fowler said in an article for The Players’ Tribune days after the Cubs’ World Series win. “I almost couldn’t believe what had happened. It was like something out of a dream. And we couldn’t have scripted a better start to that game.”
On Tuesday, Fowler officially announced his retirement after 14 seasons in MLB. He called it a career after stints with the Rockies, the Astros, the Cardinals and the Angels in addition to his two years with the Cubs.
Fowler was given his flowers throughout the day. Tributes kept pouring in for a guy who meant so much to Cubs fans, regardless of the fact he only spent two years in the organization and then signed with the Cardinals. That’s just another example of how important he truly was to the team that finally broke the curse.
Still, Fowler’s announcement brought with it a reminder of what the Cubs have been missing since he left the club six years ago.
Without a reliable leadoff hitter like Fowler in the fold, the Cubs have spent every season since his departure searching for one. They’ve seemingly tested out everyone who’s been on the roster in that time, even more traditional middle-of-the-order bats like Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras. The leadoff experiments have had varying degrees of success, but none of those options fit the way Fowler did during his time on the North Side. That ultimately played a part in the Cubs’ fall from grace after he left for St. Louis.
Heading into the 2023 season, the Cubs still don’t have a clear choice for the leadoff spot. There are some interesting options on the roster; that includes returning players like Ian Happ, Seiya Suzuki, Nico Hoerner and Nick Madrigal, as well as newcomers Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger
It’s no wonder, though, that with the return of Cubs Convention last month, questions about the leadoff situation returned, too.
“I think we’ve got a couple different ways we can look at that,” manager David Ross said during the coaches panel at Cubs Convention. “Happer has done it before. I think Seiya is going to fit more in the middle. I think Belli is going to fit more in the middle. Dansby is intriguing with the way he hits the fastball. Nico is also intriguing. Depending on where Madrigal fits in and how he continues to bounce back after some injuries. There’s some guys in the mix for that. I don’t think the roster is quite full yet. We’ll see how it shakes out.
“I’ve made out multiple lineups, and somebody ends up at the top of that differently almost every night.”
Ross appears to be taking Suzuki and Bellinger out of the equation. That does make sense when you consider Ross likes Suzuki’s fit as the No. 2 hitter. For Bellinger, a return to anything resembling his 2019 NL MVP form would mean he fits best in the heart of the order, not at the top of it.
OK, so what about the other players Ross mentioned?
Hoerner and Madrigal have similar offensive profiles in that they’re both extremely good at making contact with the ball, but neither take walks at a consistent clip, which negatively impacts their on-base percentages. Plus, Madrigal isn’t guaranteed an everyday lineup spot, so you can’t really expect him to be a top option right now.
Happ has led off in the past, yes, but he only had two total plate appearances at the No. 1 spot in 2022. That was also the season in which Happ finally found consistency in all facets of the game, and it might not be in anyone’s best interest to move him around again.
Ross is right that Swanson hits the fastball well, as evidenced by his .545 slugging percentage and .390 wOBA against heaters last season. However, Swanson is also the $177 million man who brings the kind of pop (27 and 25 homers in ’21 and ’22, respectively) the Cubs sorely need. So, his best fit might also be in the middle of the order.
Honestly, the player who might finally give the Cubs that productive leadoff hitter again will likely spend at least one more season in the minors. Pete Crow-Armstrong doesn’t turn 21 for almost two months, but he’s already shown a combination of speed, the ability to get on base and the ability to hit for average. Those are the types of traits that could help him excel in the leadoff role if the Cubs eventually put him there.
Though Ross might have to spend another year tinkering with the leadoff spot, Crow-Armstrong could end up finally filling the hole that Fowler left behind.