Foresight 2020: Will somebody grab the everyday center field role?
Hindsight is 20/20, they always say. But as the 2020 Cubs season gets underway, we don’t have the benefit of hindsight — foresight is the only option at the moment. So let’s play a game of 20 questions, tackling the most important topics surrounding this Cubs team entering the campaign.
Next up: How will the center field competition play out?
Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. knew going into spring training that they’d be in competition for the Cubs everyday center field job.
They’ve given manager David Ross a welcome headache in his decision-making process. Both former first-round picks have put together strong springs, each making a strong case to be the starter when the Cubs open up the regular season on March 26 in Milwaukee.
Through Tuesday, Almora Jr. has slashed .296/.345/.556 with a pair of home runs and 6 RBI in 29 plate appearances, while Happ leads the Cubs in most offensive categories this spring with a .481/.500/.815 slash line, 2 HR and 11 RBI.
So just who takes the field at Miller Park and the rest of the season as the Cubs battle to regain NL Central supremacy? It’s a question many knew would arise this offseason, and Cubs fans should feel a sense of optimism with how Happ and Almora Jr. have performed in spring training.
Here’s our best cracks at who will be patrolling center field for the Cubs:
Tony Andracki, Cubs digital reporter:
In my eyes, this is all about Happ and if he’s truly made the necessary strides at the plate. Spring training stats don’t count, of course, but Happ’s hot start isn’t completely meaningless. At the very least, it should give him a wave of confidence going into the regular season.
Almora was also out to a hot start to begin the spring after making some adjustments to his swing over the winter, but he’s cooled off a bit since and he’s always been a very streaky hitter. For him, it’s all about what pitches he chooses to swing at. When he works the count, he’s typically able to drive the ball more and provide more value with his bat to go along with his solid defensive acumen. Almora has always made a lot of contact, but that can also work against him as he often swings early in the count and puts pitcher’s pitches into play for outs.
Almora is the better defender of the two, but Happ has much more upside offensively. He’s a switch-hitter with pop from both sides of the plate, he runs well and he works the count and draws walks (career .340 OBP in MLB) even though he strikes out quite a bit.
The Cubs sent Happ down to the minor leagues at this time last year, tasking the young outfielder with making adjustments to his swing and plate approach. It took him a few months to figure it out, but after he was recalled to the big leagues midseason, he finished on a high note (.311 AVG, 1.021 OPS in September).
“For me, it was a great year, finishing with a really solid statline at the end of the year and some really good progress,” Happ said. “I learned a ton. I learned a lot about handling different pitches, about what I need to do from both sides of the plate. I learned a lot about myself and gaining confidence throughout the season. I think those are just some of the things you need to learn throughout the course of your career.”
Both Happ and Almora took full advantage of hitting the reset button in the offseason, but when the new campaign starts, expect Happ to get the first crack at “everyday” opportunities in center. Almora will still play (especially against lefties) and he can always come in as a defensive replacement, but Happ has proven he deserves a shot at getting regular at-bats in the big leagues.
Beyond that, expect to see Steven Souza Jr. serve as center field depth with Ian Miller also an option. The Cubs would prefer to keep Jason Heyward in right field where he’s a five-time Gold Glover, but the veteran has also shown capable of handling center if injuries strike.
Andy Martinez, Cubs digital contributor:
Almora is putting together a very strong, impressive spring training, especially after arguably the most challenging season of his big-league career.
But, Happ has taken his opportunity in the spring and run with it. He’s been impressive in Arizona, making him the best choice to take the center field spot when the Cubs open up the 2020 regular season against the Brewers. In addition to his strong spring, Happ offers versatility as a switch hitter. He was a better defender last season per defensive-WAR from Baseball Reference (0.2 dWAR vs. Almora’s -0.2).
The Cubs could benefit from stability. If Happ can provide that, it increases the team’s chances of bouncing back and reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2018. And if Almora can continue to shine in the regular season like he has in the spring, then that’s another weapon off the bench for the Cubs. Happ can also play elsewhere in the outfield to give someone a day off, while not necessarily losing a beat in center.
Strong play from both in the regular season can only bode well for the Cubs.
As we approach the start of the regular season, read more on our “Foresight is 2020” series:
–Will Nico Hoerner start the year in the majors?
–How does Jason Kipnis fit into the Cubs mix?
–How will second base shake out?
–Will Jeremy Jeffress regain his 2018 dominance?
–Will Craig Kimbrel bounce back with a normal offseason/spring training?
–Who will emerge in Cubs bullpen?
–Can Kyle Schwarber put it all together after a huge second half?
–What role will Steven Souza Jr. have?
-Will somebody grab the everyday center field role?
-Can Willson Contreras maintain his 2019?