PT TOMORROW: NL Central—Making the case for Jason Heyward to lead off for CHC

Chicago Cubs

Key players like Anthony Rizzo (1B, CHC) and Kris Bryant (3B/OF, CHC) are showing signs of coming alive at the plate, yet despite their relatively slow start, the Cubs rank fifth in runs scored per game. That’s even more impressive when considering the total lack of offensive contribution the team has gotten from the leadoff spot, primarily manned by Albert Almora (OF, CHC), Daniel Descalso (INF, CHC), and Ben Zobrist (2B/OF, CHC) through 25 games. Combined, the trio has hit .248/.317/.266 atop the team’s order. While Descalso has fared the best of the trio, the team has a few intriguing—and potentially under the radar—options to put atop their lineup if they decide to shake things up.  

While hardly imaginable a month ago, Jason Heyward’s (OF, CHC) approach at the plate to begin the season fits the leadoff role. Batting primary out of the seventh spot to this point, Heyward has shown a renewed plate discipline (1.70 Eye, .456 on-base percentage through 70 at-bats) reminiscent of his more fantasy-relevant seasons of 2013-2016. He’s also made strong contact (101 HctX) and paired that with decent speed (95 Spd), giving him many traits desirable for a productive leadoff hitter.

Another candidate to lead the offense is David Bote (2B/3B, CHC). While it certainly appeared that he’d have a limited role with the team this season, he’s made an impression on at least one veteran who wanted him in the team’s lineup, and he has gotten fairly regular playing time. While that’s anecdotal, Bote has flashed plenty of skills as well, racking up a .397 on-base percentage and 122 HctX. The pair would also make a natural platoon, with Bote showing he can hit lefties hard  (158 PX through 68 at-bats).

 

Cincinnati Reds

With the exception of Jesse Winker (OF, CIN) the Reds outfield has provided very little in terms of offensive production to begin the season. Through Saturday’s action, the group had combined to post a .194/.256/.361 line. Their defense has been similarly poor, combining to post a -4.7 UZR, good for 28th in the league.

The injury to Matt Kemp (OF, CIN) lessened the team’s outfield depth and promoted Phillip Ervin (CIN, OF) from fifth outfielder to fourth. While there hasn’t been a huge uptick in his playing time, the barriers in his way aren’t particularly daunting. Manager David Bell has stuck with Scott Schebler (OF, CIN) over Ervin despite Schebler posting a 63 ct% and 60.5 GB%, all while playing porous defense (-1.2 UZR). Even once Kemp is able to return from his broken rib, the team has no reason to hand a pending free agent that’s 34 years old playing time rather than seeing what a once-promising prospect can do with regular at-bats.  

While the team continues to insist on Nick Senzel (2B/OF, CIN) breaking into the league as an outfielder, the Reds’ infield also has a number of questions. That would make it unsurprising to see him shift back to the infield in short order, allowing Ervin the chance to build on his intriguing second-half last season (7 HR, 6 SB in 218 at-bats).

 

Milwaukee Brewers

Jesus Aguilar (1B/MIL) has failed to build on his breakout 2018 season in one month of 2019 action. While his plate discipline has remained intact (0.47 Eye), his power has taken a drastic dip (97 HctX, 92xPX, 24PX), and as a result, he’s already started to lose his grip on the everyday job at first base. A sampling of the playing time at the position across the six Brewers games spanning from April 22-28 suggests as much: Eric Thames (1B/OF, MIL) drew four starts, Aguilar one, and Yasmani Grandal (C, MIL) one.

Though the team hasn’t formally said Eric Thames will be the everyday first baseman, it certainly seems that the role is his for the taking. While his 208 PX and 221 xPX both suggest he won’t look back, his 0.23 Eye and 57 ct% both indicate he may be best fit to bat against right-handed pitching vulnerable to lefty power. Speaking of handedness, it’s also important to note that Thames has just a .205/.266/.396 line in 273 career at-bats against left-handed pitching, so there’s little chance he becomes an everyday player regardless of how poorly Aguilar plays.

While it’s not a satisfying answer, both Thames and Aguilar have significant flaws in their game. Right now, Aguilar’s are on full display as he still can’t hit fastballs (.097 slugging percentage), but Thames lacks the contact skills to be a consistent producer. Given the sample we have to work with, owning either will be a chore that will require carefully studying weekly (or daily) matchups. However, both have displayed enough power and are likely still cheap enough to acquire that careful investments in both could pay off down the stretch of the season.

 

St. Louis Cardinals

While playing time in the Cardinals outfield got even harder to decipher with the return of both Tyler O’Neill (OF, STL) and Harrison Bader (OF, STL) (a situation covered in PT Today), their infield is far more locked into regular roles. However, Kolten Wong (2B, STL) has cooled off since a hot start to the season—he’s hitting .225/.415/.325 in the last 15 days—and both Paul DeJong (SS, STL) and Matt Carpenter (3B, STL) have some injury history. Given the team’s track record of calling up major-league ready prospects, it’s worth surveying the upper levels of the minor leagues to take a look at who could make an impact if given the opportunity.

Jedd Gyorko (INF, STL) would likely be first in line to earn extra playing time were a benching or injury to occur. However, he’s yet to get in any rhythm at the plate after a stint on the injured list himself. Yairo Munoz (INF, STL) proved capable in a utility role last season as well, though he has failed to maintain a consistent bench role in the early going, shuttling between Triple-A Memphis and the big-leagues.

While the Cardinals unsurprisingly boast an array of major-league ready infield prospects, two stand out based on prospect pedigree and recent performance. Edmundo Sosa (SS, STL) has the most pedigree of the group. He carries a similar profile as Munoz, and was given an uninspiring description in our BaseballHQ organizational report as having below average power and above-average speed that he puts to little use. While the numbers largely back that sentiment, Sosa spiked a .420 slugging percentage between Double and Triple-A in 2018, and has flashed a surprising amount of power early in 2019, slugging .550 on the strength of four doubles, a triple, and two home runs.

Ramon Urias (INF, STL) doesn’t carry the prospect pedigree of Sosa, but was noted as a prospect that intrigued the team in the preseason by long-time beat writer Derrick Goold. Said Goold, “The Cardinals are intrigued to see how that bat (Urias’) plays at Class-AAA Memphis and where his glove can put him on the field.” While he hasn’t gotten off to a tremendous start at Memphis (.213/.324/.377 through 61 at-bats), Urias is another name to keep in mind should the team need to rely on its depth.

 

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates have battled an array of injuries early in the season, with long absences to Corey Dickerson (OF, PIT), Starling Marte (PIT, OF), and Gregory Polanco (OF, PIT) crippling their offense. That has resulted in a team offense that has combined to produce a .357 slugging percentage and .130 ISO through 25 games, both good for bottom-four in the league. Even when Marte and Dickerson return—Dickerson recently suffered a setback—neither has produced elite power results as a member of the Pirates. Other recent reinforcements like Jason Martin (OF, PIT), Bryan Reynolds (OF, PIT), and Cole Tucker (SS, PIT) profile more as gap hitters with speed.

Will Craig (1B/3B, PIT)—recently highlighted in BaseballHQ's Watchlist column—could step in to fill the power void. After failing to surpass the .375 mark in slugging in the lower-levels of the minors, Craig managed a .448 mark in 2018 at Double-A Altoona, only to smack six more home runs in 90 plate appearances at the Arizona Fall League. He’s continued that power surge at Triple-A this season, already recording seven home runs and two doubles through 80 at-bats, good enough for a .550 slugging percentage. While there is a lack of contact in his game, he is a power bat the Pirates’ sorely lack.

However, there is no playing time available for Craig at his natural position of first base. It is worth noting that he also played at third base early in his minor league career, but Ke’Bryan Hayes (3B, PIT) could claim that as his home as early as June. That said, his bat fits the Pirates’ needs, but the team will have to get creative to get him at-bats on a regular basis.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.