The Chicago Cubs are headed to Spring Training with a starting outfield that does not include Ian Happ. That being said, what is his role heading into 2019?
After finishing eighth in National League Rookie of the Year voting two years ago, Ian Happ faces a somewhat uncertain future. Or, maybe not, depending on how you want to look at the task that lies ahead of the 24-year-old Chicago Cubs utility player.
Happ burst onto the scene in 2017, putting up a 113 OPS+ and accumulating 1.8 WAR in just 115 games. Heading into last season, Joe Maddon tapped him as the team’s leadoff hitter, but that experiment went up in flames rather quickly. At the top of the order, Happ slashed just .222/.311/.370 – and his struggles ran even deeper without anyone on base.
With the bases empty, he hit just .197/.315/.391. What does this tell us? At least at this point, his approach seems best suited for a more middle-of-the-order spot, rather than as a table-setter atop the lineup. Maddon has already stated the Cubs won’t have a set daily lineup once again in 2019 – but based on what we saw last year, Happ shouldn’t see much time as the leadoff man.
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We all know about his struggles with left-handed pitching. He batted just .202 against southpaws in 2018, with an OPS 180 points lower than what he put up against right-handers (.653 to .832). With the team tapping Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward and Albert Almora as the likely starters heading into spring training, look for heavy platoon work for Happ in 2019.
Count on seeing Happ back in center field, but also in the corner spots from time to time and even at second base – likely more than last season. With Addison Russell out for the first month or so, Javier Baez will slide over to shortstop. That leaves you some combination of Happ, Ben Zobrist and Daniel Descalso to handle things at second in the interim.
Against southpaws, I’d expect to see Zobrist. In 135 plate appearances last season against left-handers, Zo put up a .381 OBP and .333 average – a vast improvement from what Happ managed. And, with Zobrist heading into the final season of his four-year deal, this could be the year the Cubs have their veteran leader groom Happ as his replacement-in-waiting.
There’s little doubt as to the value Ian Happ brings to the table. Last season, he played every position outside of short and catcher. Granted, he strikes out entirely too much (he had the fifth-most Ks in the National League last year) – but he walks a ton and provides defensive versatility, something Maddon values a great deal.
This is a big year for Ian Happ. If he can cut down on the strikeouts and generate some more pop in the process, he could take a big step forward and help the Cubs get back to the postseason.