For two years, the Cubs enjoyed stability in center field and at the leadoff spot from Dexter Fowler.
That changed last year after Fowler signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2017, Cubs manager Joe Maddon used 11 different leadoff hitters, and five different players started in center field.
Fowler was an island of stability in Maddon’s world of ever-changing lineups. Those lineups will change on a daily basis again this year, but some interesting things are happening in center field, and those things may have an impact on the leadoff spot, as well.
Second-year player Ian Happ is having a good Cactus League season, and he is making his case to be the center fielder and leadoff man.
Albert Almora Jr. has been waiting in the wings for what seems like forever to take over as the regular center fielder.
“It’s really wide open, and I’m not hyper-concerned,” Maddon told reporters last week regarding the leadoff spot. “I think that’s been overblown with us. If you look at the numbers last year, the eventual number of runs scored was pretty darn good.
“Would I love to have Rickey Henderson? Absolutely. Lou Brock would be a good option, too. If you don’t have that, it’s about trying to match up your better on-base percentage guy.”
Happ and Almora offer different skill sets, and both were first-round draft choices of the Cubs.
With Happ, the Cubs get versatility and power. He can play the infield and the outfield, even if his defense can use some polish. The switch-hitting Happ came up from Triple-A Iowa in May and wound up with a hitting line of .253/.328/.514 with 24 homers and 68 RBIs in 413 plate appearances. His home-run-to-flyball ratio was 25.3 percent. Kris Bryant had a ratio of 16 percent, and Anthony Rizzo was at 16.9 percent.
“On our team and in our lineup, any spot is good to hit in,” Happ told Cubs.com. “Leadoff spot, being able to set the table for those guys would be great.”
Almora went .298/.338/.445 with eight homers and 46 RBIs last year in 323 plate appearances. He is a heady player even if he does not offer much power. The ZiPS system of Fangraphs.com projects him at .272/.306/.409 with nine homers and 50 RBIs this season. It has Happ at .255/.325/.488 with 28 homers and 85 RBIs.
Of Happ, Fangraphs.com says: “Ian Happ played great last season. Between Triple-A and the majors, he hit .260 with 33 HR and 10 SB (stolen bases). The only aspect of his game holding him back was high MLB strikeout rate (31 percent). His .316 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was the only reason he could keep his (batting average) over .250. There is no reason he can’t put up similar numbers in 2018.”
It offers this analysis on Almora: “Another year, another unclear path to playing time for Albert Almora. The center-field job is his to lose, theoretically, but rest assured the Cubs will creatively divvy up reps to Javier Baez, Ian Happ, Ben Zobrist, Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward … everyone. Moreover, Almora doesn’t project to outplay any of them by a margin that suggests he deserves a larger share of the pie. He’ll likely see something like 60 percent of the action in center field. When he’s on the field, he’s good for batting average and not much else.”