Cubs News: David Ross commits to Ian Happ as his everyday center fielder

Ian Happ / Chicago Cubs (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
Ian Happ / Chicago Cubs (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

Ian Ha pp has seized the center field job, according to Cubs skipper David Ross.

Since Dexter Fowler left in free agency following the 2016 season, center field has been a major area of concern for the Chicago Cubs. We’ve seen a myriad of guys take reps out there, including Jon Jay, Albert Almora and Ian Happ, among others.

As Almora’s stock continues to fall due to his offensive struggles, Chicago has turned to Happ for the lion’s share of time in center in 2020. Rookie Nico Hoerner got a start out there last week, but he’s working through his own battles at the plate to open the season. Meanwhile, Happ has been one of the Cubs’ best hitters – and that hasn’t gone unnoticed by manager David Ross.

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"“Right now, it’s hard to take Ian Happ out of the lineup,” Ross said. “He’s the real deal, in my opinion … The times [Happ] has got to get some days off, we’ll look at that. We’ve got Al, who just continues to wow on defense. … But, right now, the job’s Ian Happ’s.”"

Happ ranks second on the Cubs, trailing only Jason Kipnis in OPS thanks to an impressive .297/.409/.622. It’s worth nothing Happ has played in more than twice as many games as Kipnis, accumulating 37 at-bats to Kipnis’ 16. His swing-and-miss tendencies that led to his demotion to Triple-A Iowa last year are much improved; he has just 10 strikeouts to seven walks.

The back-and-forth between Happ and Almora has been a years-long competition. But with Ross opting for Hoerner over Almora against a left-hander last week, there’s been speculation that at this point, Almora is now primarily a late-inning defensive replacement. 

Last season, Almora ranked in the bottom eight percent of the league in hard-hit rate and bottom two percent in WOBA. It’s become abundantly clear that he’s not hitting the ball hard enough to overcome his low walk-rate. This has led to his offensive cratering (38 OPS+ in 16 plate appearances to-date in 2020) – and his falling out of favor with the club.

Meanwhile, there are few holes in Happ’s game right now. He’s even hitting lefties better than he has in the past (.817 OPS against southpaws) – making him infinitely more versatile, lending a quality switch-hitter to Ross’ lineup and more effectively rendering matchups a moot point.

"“I’ve learned a lot. You learn over the course of your career. You get better as things go,” Happ said. “I feel great about where I’m at right now and my ability to help the team and get on base for those guys that are hitting behind me.”"

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As difficult as it was for Happ to go to Iowa for the majority of last year, it’s clearly paid dividends. With another productive bat in the lineup and a long-time question seemingly answered in center, this could wind up being one of the team’s biggest improvements in a strange 2020 calendar.