Chicago Cubs: Finding long-term roles for Albert Almora and Ian Happ

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

Ian Happ and Albert Almora, a pair of former Chicago Cubs first-round picks, both have a significant role to play moving forward – despite their contrasting paths.

Albert Almora made his MLB debut in June 2016.  Looking at his batting and defensive metrics it is becoming more clear that he is the Chicago Cubs center fielder of the future.

Starting the 2018 season there was concern that Almora was vulnerable to right-handed pitching in terms of his K-rate and it remains high at 22 percent vs. 5.2 percent against lefties.  In his first season-and-a-half, Maddon used him efficiently against righties.  But this year, he has seen more at-bats facing righties and has shown improved numbers against them.

The splits are still significant, make no mistake. The difference between his OPS against righties and lefties is greater than 200 points (.930 to .721). But against right-handers, Almora still carries a more-than-respectable .289 average across 126 plate appearances.

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On the whole, Almora boasts a 110 OPS+, meaning he’s been roughly 10 percent better than league average offensively. That’s due largely in-part to his robust .364 on-base percentage.

Ian Happ made his big league debut in May 2017, about a year after Almora.   WAR-wise, his sophomore year in the bigs so far is lagging behind his rookie year and his defensive outfield metrics leave a little to be desired, though his infield metrics are better.

We all know the tried-and-forgotten story from earlier this season. After opening the Major League calendar with a big fly, the outfielder went into a tailspin. A .703 OPS in April had more than a few fans worried. However, thanks to working counts more effectively, he raised that to .981 in the month of May.

His limited opportunities for playing time has likely hindered his development. This might be tolerable, at least for the time being, because his role will be different than Almora’s long-term.

Looking Ahead

Almora and Happ project to have very different responsibilities.  Almora has clearly become the  starting center fielder and is proving his worth at the plate.   Happ’s role might seem less obvious until you consider that Ben Zobrist will be entering his final year with the Cubs in 2019.

A free agent after said season, Zobrist will be 39 years old in 2020. Though he is having a resurgent year in 2018, the Cubs will need to find a versatile player who can play multiple positions. Enter Ian Happ.

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So wait, what about Tommy La Stella?  I like La Stella too, but he has no big league experience in the outfield – at least not yet. Happ has outfield experience and is under team control until 2024. It makes more sense to let the former continue to thrive in his first-off-the-bench role and see how Happ plays out as your everyday utility guy.