Chicago Cubs: The race is on for the center field nod

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 04: Ian Happ #8, Albert Almora Jr. #5, and Jason Heyward #22 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate the 7-2 win Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field on August 04, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS - AUGUST 04: Ian Happ #8, Albert Almora Jr. #5, and Jason Heyward #22 of the Chicago Cubs celebrate the 7-2 win Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field on August 04, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /
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(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
(Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images) /

Nothing glamorizes spring training like position battles! The Chicago Cubs have an intriguing one going on for center field between two well-known players.

The Chicago Cubs don’t have much to figure out this spring from a positional standpoint. First base, third base, shortstop, left field, and catcher are gimmes.

Second base is a bit up in the air, though it seems the spot is Nico Hoerner’s to lose. The main race is in center field, where Albert Almora and Ian Happ are currently duking it out.

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This is a fascinating clash, as the organization has favored both players for quite some time. In fact, the two names have essentially been synonymous since 2016, a year in which Happ ranked as the Cubs’ top prospect and Almora ranked as their #3 prospect.

Each has endured considerable major league playing time over the past three seasons, though neither has panned out as the club had hoped — at least not yet.

The case for Ian Happ

The Cubs are obsessed with Happ’s potential with a bat in his hands. He was granted a 60-grade hit tool coming out of the 2015 draft.

To give some perspective, Kris Bryant received a grade of 55 at the time of his draft. Happ has a quick bat from both sides and a ton of pop for his 6’0”, 205 LB stature. He hit 24 home runs in only 364 at-bats with Chicago in 2017.

The strikeout has been his Achilles heel, however. He struck out every third AB in 2017, and his K-rate only grew the following season with the Cubs.

As the strikeout totals grew, Happ’s confidence seemed to naturally waver. He spent most of 2019 in Triple-A where he recorded a slash line of .242/.364/.432. He fanned 113 times in 359 at-bats.

With the starting center field spot at stake, and perhaps the organization losing patience, this spring is mighty important for the 25-year-old. He’s off to a nice start, going 7-for-15 with two homers and one strikeout over six games.

How does he fit?

Happ can bat anywhere in the Chicago lineup. The top slots are typically reserved for quality contact hitters, though the Chicago Cubs are an exception to that formality.

Kyle Schwarber frequented the leadoff spot under Joe Maddon; Schwarber has averaged 148 strikeouts over his last three seasons. Now, new manager David Ross has voiced his intentions to hit Kris Bryant leadoff to start 2020. Bryant stuck out 145 times last season, which were third-most on the team.

Point being, their lineup construction has few limitations. Though pragmatically speaking, it wouldn’t make much sense to add a strikeout-prone hitter to a top of the order that is already strikeout-prone.

Happ is worthy of a high spot in the order when he is at his best, but it may take some time for him to earn that trust this go around. Expect him to hit 7th or 8th if he makes the team.