State of the Cubs

State of the Cubs: Center field

3 months agoAndy Martinez

Uncertainty will be the name of the game around Major League Baseball this winter as the league navigates its first offseason following the pandemic-shortened campaign.

It’s impossible to predict exactly how things will play out in a winter unlike anything we’ve ever seen before in the sport, but let’s take a look at where the Cubs stand with each position group heading into the offseason.

Next up: Center Field

Depth Chart

  1. Ian Happ
  2. Albert Almora Jr.
  3. Nico Hoerner

Analysis

When 2020 started, one of the most hotly contested positions in the Cubs lineup was center field between Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr. As 2020 comes to an end, there’s no doubt who has solidified that role: Happ.

Happ was arguably the team’s offensive MVP, slashing .258/.361/.505 with 12 home runs and 28 RBI he also secured the Cubs’ leadoff position, something they had tried to fill since Dexter Fowler’s departure after 2016.

“I know that, for us, it’s been a little bit of a struggle for that position,” Happ said before their playoff opener against the Marlins. “And so, it’s just being the one that takes the burden on and says, ‘Look, I’m going to take the five [at-bats] every day. Let’s find a way to score some runs.’

“Find a way to get on base twice a day for the team. That’s my goal every day.”

He did that pretty well.

Happ had a 1.079 OPS as the first batter of the game with 4 home runs. Through early September, Happ was a legitimate MVP candidate in the National League and his 1.093 OPS through Sept. 5 was propelling the team to a cushioned lead in the NL Central.

Things cooled off after that for Happ and part of that might have been attributed to an eye injury he suffered on Sept. 3 in Pittsburgh, when a foul ball ricocheted and hit his eye causing him to miss the next day’s game. He was just 2-for-11 in the next three games after the eye injury, which caused some slight blurred vision.

While his overall numbers took a slight dip after Sept. 5, he continued to do the most important thing for a leadoff hitter: he got on base. Happ reached safely in 12 of his last 17 starts.

In the playoffs, he reverted back to his MVP level, going 4-for-8 from the leadoff spot including a Game 1 home run, the Cubs’ lone run of the playoffs.

Happ took the everyday center field job and ran with it, but late in games, manager David Ross wasn’t shy in moving Happ to left for defensive purposes. That meant Ross’ best defensive outfield was in the game late. At the beginning of the season, that meant Almora patrolled center. Almora struggled to garner consistent at-bats and had just 5 hits in 34 plate appearances. That led to a demotion to the alternate site in South Bend. The Cubs added the speedy Billy Hamilton off waivers from the Mets and he patrolled center late in games. Hamilton is set to be a free agent in the offseason.

Nico Hoerner displayed his versatility, starting a game on Aug. 5 in centerfield while Happ was given a day off. He played in one game in center field in 2019, too.

Cameron Maybin started three games in center for the Cubs but is set to become a free agent at the end of the season.

What’s next?

The big question about center field centers more on Almora’s status for 2021. He’s arbitration eligible, but will the Cubs tender a contract to him after a tough 2020 season? If they tender him a contract, then the Cubs will hope a full, normal season can allow Almora to get some regular at-bats, find his rhythm and be a capable backup to Happ when he needs a day off or as a defensive replacement late in games.

If the Cubs decide not to tender a contract to Almora, then they’ll need to find a backup outfielder as the only outfielders on the 40-man roster under club control in 2021 are Happ, Jason Heyward and Kyle Schwarber. Could that inspire the Cubs to bring back one of Hamilton or Maybin? Hamilton would make the most sense, given his defensive prowess and his speed on the base paths, which Ross called the type of weapon ‘that wins you a World Series.”

Bottom Line

Unlike this time last year, there’s no question that Happ is the Cubs’ everyday center fielder. There’s also added comfort in knowing that Happ is the Cubs’ everyday leadoff hitter, too. He’s brought stability to the leadoff position and is poised to build off the successful 2020 season that he had.  

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