Chicago Cubs: Joe Maddon doesn’t seem sold on Ian Happ as leadoff man
By Jake Misener
Despite an outstanding start to the spring, Ian Happ may not be Joe Maddon‘s choice atop the batting order when the Chicago Cubs open the season.
A couple weeks deep into Cactus League action, Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ continues to turn heads. The 23-year-old outfielder leads the Arizona circuit in long balls and owns an OPS pushing 1.800 through is first half-dozen games.
So, really, he’s exceeded any expectation before him entering Spring Training. By most accounts, the starting center field job belonged to Albert Almora. But with Happ white-hot, it’s hard to envision a scenario where he doesn’t at least split playing time with his outfielder counterpart.
Happ’s stellar performance atop the Cubs’ order begs another question, as well. Is he the guy to fill this void the team struggled with for most of the 2017 season? You’d think so. I do, as well. But Joe Maddon’s recent comments make me think he’s not on the same page.
"“[Happ] could be hitting ninth and he’d be doing the same thing,” Maddon said. “He’s just motivated. He’s done a great job there because he’s hit home runs. You’re normally looking at getting on base, seeing pitches — that’s the more attractive thing."
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This has all the makings of Maddon making things harder than they need to be. Happ has performed well all-around. He’s been solid on defense, outstanding with the bat – yet Maddon is clearly keeping all options open when it comes to the leadoff spot.
Six games too small a sample size
And, that’s fair. Sure. As mentioned, Happ has played six very solid games. But six games does not a season make. Chicago boasts all kinds of potential leadoff hitters. It’s just a matter of delivering consistently – which was the problem last year.
As Carrie Muskat pointed out in her piece, Maddon has tinkered with a few other options early this spring. Almora is hitless in seven at-bats and Jason Heyward is just 1-for-6 (.167). It’s hard to draw much off Happ’s career line atop the order (a .939 OPS in 39 plate appearances) given 2017 marked his first taste of big-league action.
But it’s promising, nonetheless.
Heyward carried a .385 OPS out of the leadoff spot last season and Almora came in with a .706 OPS in a mere 17 plate appearances. Again, that’s far too small a sample size to draw anything meaningful.
One man who will undoubtedly get a semi-regular look there? Veteran Ben Zobrist, who made his Cactus League debut on Tuesday against the Dodgers. After missing time with a back issue, the utility man seems ready to get after it and show he’s not the player who struggled to get on-base as he always had last year.
Happ and Almora seem likely to platoon in center field, at the very least. Other than that, there are a lot of balls in the air. Will Heyward lose a starting spot if he struggles offensively? What will we see from Kyle Schwarber?
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All these questions will play roles in deciding who leads off for the Cubs come Opening Day. And, if we’re being honest, a regular leadoff hitter seems unlikely given the options at Maddon’s disposal.