Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

Why Joe Maddon and The Geek Department think this Cubs lineup could be more explosive than last year’s team

MESA, Ariz. – The Geek Department has spoken, reaffirming Cubs manager Joe Maddon's belief that Kyle Schwarber should be the leadoff guy atop another monster lineup projected to score more runs than the 2016 World Series champions.

"I'm all about the geeks," Maddon said. "Everybody should have their own geek."

Before the Cubs even reported to Arizona for camp, Maddon assigned a project to the research-and-development wing inside Theo Epstein's front office, asking what the simulations looked like with Schwarber at leadoff and the pitcher hitting eighth in front of Jon Jay or Albert Almora Jr.      

"Really hot, really hot," Maddon said. "If that number's right, I'll take it."

Would that projection be north of 800 runs?

"I didn't get an actual overall number," Maddon said. "I got a per-game number. That's what I like."

Maddon sort of smirked when asked if the per-game average would be north of five: "I don't know. It's a good number." The Cubs led every National League team except for the Colorado Rockies with 808 runs scored last season. Pitcher Mike Montgomery batted eighth in Sunday's prime-time lineup against the Kansas City Royals at Sloan Park, where 2 through 7 the Cubs looked like an Opening Night cast: Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Willson Contreras and Jason Heyward.   

The Cubs are banking on a full season/good health with Schwarber, Heyward not being one of the worst hitters in the majors and continued growth from their young talent. Even with Dexter Fowler taking his you-go, we-go act to the St. Louis Cardinals, the internal forecast has the 2017 Cubs scoring more runs than last year's 103-win team.

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"With Schwarber hitting first, yeah," Maddon said. "I think that's accurate. I don't remember that number being on last year's lineup. They gave me a sheet with different scenarios. It was pretty heavy. 

"Dexter was awesome, obviously. But (it's) Schwarber with the power potential, the home runs coming out of that spot with the extra at-bats, the natural rebounding of Jason. You just think that Jason's going to be a better hitter, production-wise, than last year, (plus) some of the younger guys, like Willson as an example, in his second year in the big leagues. 

"I've been talking about bearing down on defense and pitching, because I think naturally the hitting's going to get better, based on these guys are good and they have more experience. 

"All those things indicate that if we set it up this way, we should have a pretty good offensive year, especially against a right-handed pitcher."

Schwarber might get the day off against tough lefties, which would push the pitcher back down to the ninth spot. But the Cubs aren't an NL West team that will regularly have to face a Clayton Kershaw or a Madison Bumgarner. And the facts on the ground are constantly changing.

"I talk to the guys upstairs: 'This is what I'm thinking. Tell me where I'm wrong,'" Maddon said. "Like I said a couple years ago when Schwarber finally came up, I thought of hitting Schwarber first there and Dexter second. But they insisted the other way around. They were right. 

"So, listen, I have no problem with that stuff. Believe me, that's the one thing I have learned: You can have all the great feelings in the world. It still might not be the right thing. Like a guy comes up to me and says: 'I have a good feeling about today.' Oh my God, I want to run. 

"How do you know? There are so many times I've come to the ballpark, felt like crap, and we'll play the best game of the year. That has no correlation. You can feel all you want. (But) they gave me some solid information. I'm open for all that stuff."

While "Bryzzo," an American League-style lineup and a franchise built around hitters drew more attention, the Cubs rolled up a plus-252 run differential last year with consistent pitching and the best defensive unit in the majors, meaning this could actually be a different dimension for the defending champs.

"Everybody talked about the offense," Maddon said. "We pitched and caught the ball so well that the differential spread based on that. It wasn't just purely beating people up offensively."

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

Kyle Schwarber has rocky start to Triple-A stint

The Cubs gave Kyle Schwarber time to sort things out by sending him down to Triple-A Iowa, and Schwarber's first game back in the minors shows he may need some time.

Schwarber's first game with the Iowa Cubs was a forgettable one. He struck out in his first three plate appearances before singling in his last at-bat. He struck out looking in the first inning before striking out swinging his next two times up.

Schwarber batted third in the lineup and played left field. Iowa won 1-0 against the New Orleans Baby Cakes.

He last played for Iowa in 2015, but only spent 17 games there. He hit .333 with three homers and a 1.036 OPS in that short stint. Before getting sent down Schwarber was hitting .171 with the Cubs with 12 home runs, but also 75 strikeouts in 64 games.

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

Cubs show why they are defending champs while Nationals still have something to prove

WASHINGTON – The Cubs already visited the White House. The Washington Nationals are still the team with so much more to prove.

Dusty Baker needs this October to cement his spot in Cooperstown, the way Joe Maddon put the final bullet point on his Hall of Fame resume. Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant took different routes out of Las Vegas, but only one has the World Series ring to go with the Rookie of the Year/MVP hardware. While the clock is ticking on Max Scherzer and that championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Jon Lester megadeal essentially paid for itself.

Cubs vs. Nationals is supposed to be a circle-your-calendar event. Except the Cubs rolled out a Cactus League lineup on Monday night and Nationals Park featured rows and rows of empty seats amid a crowd of 29,651 where the celebrity vibe became more George Will than A-Rod and J-Lo.

The Cubs still hung on for a 5-4 victory that might have been their best under-the-circumstances win in a season that will hit the halfway point this weekend, showing why they’re the defending champs.

“It is exciting – don’t get me wrong,” Maddon said. “It’s just that we’re attending with a different group than we thought we would be attending this party with.

“And that’s OK, because these guys now are getting the kind of experience that is going to be very beneficial to us in August and September.”

A rash of injuries forced the Cubs to start Jeimer Candelario at third base and Mark Zagunis in right field and Javier Baez kept making highlight-reel plays while Addison Russell rested his sore right shoulder, leaping to grab to a Harper line drive and racing across the left-field line and sliding into the wall to make another spectacular catch in foul territory.

“Games like this is what we need right now – competition,” said Baez, who struck out in his first three at-bats and finished at 2-for-5. “Playing tight games like this will make us make adjustments better and be more in the game.”

With Kyle Schwarber more than 1,000 miles away in Des Moines and hitting the reset button at Triple-A Iowa, Willson Contreras became the leadoff hitter of the day and launched Gio Gonzalez’s fifth pitch of the game into the left-field seats.

The young Cubs manufactured their next run in the eighth inning when Baez stole third base and scored on Albert Almora Jr.’s perfectly placed bunt into the no man’s land between the pitcher’s mound and the first-base line. The bullpen is Washington’s Achilles’ heel and showed with a three-run meltdown in the ninth inning.

Eddie Butler – who began the season in the Iowa rotation – neutralized a powerful Washington lineup while getting just one strikeout in five innings. Maddon pushed a lot of bullpen buttons, not going to Wade Davis for a four-out save and then summoning the All-Star closer when Hector Rondon couldn’t work with a five-run cushion.

In a dramatic finish, Davis survived giving up three hits, a walk and a wild pitch, striking out Ryan Zimmerman with a curveball to end a game that lasted 3 hours and 54 minutes.

“To play so well and not win that game would have really been awful,” Maddon said.

The Cubs needed this with Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg looming the next two nights. But for all of their talent and regular-season dominance – three division titles since 2012 and close to a 100-win pace this year – the Nationals still haven’t won a playoff series in a city where the Senators once won it all in 1924.

This could be an epic matchup in October, bursting with stars and pumping with bad blood. Just listen to Baker during his pregame media briefing, responding to a question about a power hitter like Anthony Rizzo batting leadoff: “I ain’t worried about the Cubs. They can do their thing.”

Or Baker dismissing Maddon’s mind games and the possibility of intentionally walking Harper when Ryan Zimmerman is a Triple Crown contender: “It’s a new time and a new day.”

The last word from Maddon, who keeps insisting the 39-37 Cubs have a hot streak in them and that he digs the youth movement: “If this was a spring training lineup, we might get a call.”