As grandma gets in the fastlane because the bingo game is gettin’ ready to roll, the final decisions, as small as they may be, have been made. We know who amongst the candidates (whom we didn’t know before spring training) will do the Iowa shuffle when the season starts (it’s not the most enjoyable dance). Along with that, we know the Cubs will carry 13 pitchers, the new pox among baseball teams. Make your children relief pitchers, people. They’ll be compensated well enough compared to the everyday punter and they really won’t have to do much.
Secondly, we know who’s going to take the bullet when it comes to the lineup and centerfield, at least to start, and that’s Ian Happ. Despite his early success in the role, it’s still a decision that I find a touch curious.
It’s not that Happ won’t be a good leadoff hitter. Happ had a good walk rate of 9.4 percent last year, and though it was only in the low ranks his walk rates in the minors were over 12 percent. If he can elevate his batting average from last year’s .253 mark, his OBP will certainly rise from .328, closer to what you’d expect from your central casting leadoff hitter. He also provides some pop at the top (like he did yesterday), and that helps the Cubs force a pitcher to lock in immediately, or it’s going to begin 1-0 to the blue side (like it was yesterday). Happ also saw 3.92 pitches per at bat in 2017, which put him behind only Rizzo, Schwarber, and Bryant in that category among regulars. So he’s patient, we get it.
However, if he’s being put in the lineup because of his bat, then it makes you wonder why the guy who will be standing to his left in the field will also be a regular, as far as we can tell.
I suppose if I’m arguing this with the Cubs front office—and there’s an image for you—they could point to a lot of metrics that say Ian Happ wasn’t that bad in center. In 349 innings out there, he had a 3.9 UZR and a 17.0 UZR/150. Those numbers actually dwarf Albert Almora’s from last year, which were 1.0 and 2.9, respectively. This is truly strange, as Almora was drafted as a center fielder. That’s where he played throughout all the minors, and he looks natural out there. When you watch Ian Happ in the outfield, you can’t help but conclude that he might as well have the glove on his head 75 percent of the time, like that kid on your little league team, and it wouldn’t make much difference. Maybe my eyes are lying to me.
I don’t think it’s outlandish to say the Cubs are a surer outfield when Almora is playing, especially when Schwarber is in left doing a mighty fine Wreck It Ralph impression. Happ is for sure an athlete, and could eventually be average to better out there, and the Cubs have seen more than I have. Let’s say I’m skeptical, though. Being an athlete didn’t keep the Cubs from deciding Happ can’t play second anymore without being a danger to himself or others.
But if it’s about offense and the better offense, I think Happ should be playing right and Almora in center. If Happ is defensively average in their eyes in center, certainly he can’t be that much worse in right? Because here’s the thing: we know that Jason Heyward just isn’t going to give the Cubs much offensively.
Oh sure, we can hope and pray, we can speculate, we can analyze whatever change we want to see in his swing instead of what’s there. But it’s been two years, his swing is still loopy and going from out to in, and basically the only hope is that every second baseman in the NL loses bodily functions when playing the Cubs (it’s happened before thanks to Clark St.) for Heyward to be a plus offensive player. And as good as Heyward is in right, having a better defensive center fielder is more important. Yes, I know, right field in Wrigley is really hard thanks to sun and wind. Except the Cubs play more and more night games now. And the wind blows everywhere. I feel like that narrative gets a touch overblown as cover for Heyward more and more.
Maybe Almora isn’t the defensive wizard I want to see. We certainly were surprised how often he looked like he was in “Willie Mays Hayes” slow motion while running last year, which definitely affected his defense. But he has a feel for the position and routes to the ball, which Happ most certainly does not. So either offense is all that matters, or Joe Maddon is telling us porky pies (lies, if you don’t have London rhyming slang in your holster).
Lead photo courtesy Rick Scuteri—USA Today Sports