Chicago Cubs: Could Ian Happ force the issue in Spring Training?

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images) /

Despite an impressive rookie season, Chicago Cubs utilityman Ian Happ will likely have to force his way into the starting lineup in 2018.

In 2017, the latest in a long line of quality Chicago Cubs prospects made his big league debut in utilityman Ian Happ. By the time the season ended, he ranked fifth among Cubs position players in WAR (1.8) – despite playing in only 115 games.

As has become custom under Joe Maddon, Happ worked in a mix-and-match fashion, playing multiple positions. He saw time in all three outfield spots, as well as second and third base. A switch-hitter, his value is clear to anyone who watches him play on a daily basis. But with Javier Baez and Addison Russell holding things down up the middle and Albert Almora likely taking the reins in center, where will Happ find his reps?

After the season he turned in a year ago, a more prominent role could be in the cards. But for that to happen, he needs to outplay someone like Almora on a near-daily basis this spring. Barring an injury, it’s hard to imagine Happ earning a starting spot, though.

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Platooning in center field

While Happ likely won’t start for the Cubs, another platoon setup makes a lot of sense looking at the numbers. I, personally, would love to see Almora take that next step in 2018. He put up a solid campaign last year, hitting .298, but struggled with drawing walks.

He could still very well be an above-average center fielder with a quality bat. But keeping Happ on the bench, simply put, just isn’t an option. This is where we’re going to see Maddon playing the matchups.

Kyle Schwarber struggles against left-handed pitchers. Last year, there was a 166-point difference between his OPS against righties and southpaws. Almora, meanwhile, hits lefties better than righties. This, not Almora-Happ, is going to be the key platoon. Maddon will be able to rotate Schwarber, Almora and Happ into the left and center-field spots on a daily basis.

Veteran Ben Zobrist will no doubt see reps in the outfield, as well. Chicago is hoping for a bounceback season from him after he battled injuries for most of 2017. Jason Heyward has right field locked down as he seeks a fifth-straight Gold Glove.

Switch hitters are important in today’s game

In a game dominated by advanced metrics, having a switch hitter in the lineup makes playing matchups much more difficult. Not to mention, Happ put up an impressive .842 OPS last season, hitting 24 home runs and finishing eighth in Rookie of the Year voting.

One of the more undervalued aspects of Happ’s game? His agility. He stole only eight bases last year, but watching him run – you can see how quick this kid is. Obviously, the Cubs added Peter Bourjos on a Minor League deal to add a speed element to the mix. But he’s not going to play on a daily basis.

And, if Happ proves himself – it might open the door to trades. Not necessarily with Happ, but it allows Chicago to explore deals with any of their outfielders. That doesn’t mean the Cubs will go down that road, but having that option in your hand isn’t a bad thing, either.

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Ultimately, Ian Happ is going to play. There’s no one better in Major League Baseball at getting his guys reps than Maddon. Either in the infield or outfield, make no mistake. We’re going to see a lot of Ian Happ in 2018.