Leadoff or Not, We'll Probably See More of Ian Happ This Season

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Leadoff or Not, We’ll Probably See More of Ian Happ This Season

Chicago Cubs

Yesterday, the Chicago Cubs played their third Spring Training game of the season, a 12-10 win over the San Francisco Giants, and Ian Happ led off that contest with this opposite field blast against Madison Bumgarner.

Here’s a look at the shot (via @ProTVSports):

But while the homer is a great sign – Happ’s devotion to the fly ball revolution, which began in the upper-minors, has taken his power game to an entirely different level over the past two years – I’m at least as interested in the fact that he was leading off for the second time in three games.

Albert Almora is scheduled to grab his second start at the top of the order this afternoon, too, which offers something close to the start of a pattern. And, as you can imagine, it’s not all random.

“It’s purposeful,” Cubs Manager Joe Maddon said via the Chicago Tribune. “We’re going to try to audition the dudes that we think might be in that spot.”

So which “dudes” might we see? Well, aside from Almora and Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Ben Zobrist are likely to see some time in that role this Spring, as the auditions continue. Of course, each comes with a couple of issues.

Zobrist, as you know, is expecting to take on far more of a complementary role this season, as he ages gracefully past his mid-30s. And, unfortunately, he’s been dealing with some back soreness, which has kept him out of the lineup so far this Spring. And Schwarber, despite being in great shape, might be best served settling in just behind Willson Contreras in the order – I don’t think anyone would be upset if that 2-5 (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Willson Contreras, Kyle Schwarber) was locked in for large swaths of the season, right?

With Addison Russell (SS), Javy Baez (2B), Jason Heyward (RF), and the pitcher falling in behind them (in whatever order), the most logical lineup for the Cubs is one that features the center fielder at the top, and, in that respect, a combination between Ian Happ and Albert Almora could make a lot of sense.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

For what it’s worth, Maddon said that he “loves” having a switch-hitter at the top of the lineup, and also considers natural-side splits when picking a switch-hitter to lead off. To that end, I think it’s becoming increasingly likely that Happ will could grab a majority of the lead off opportunities this season, only moving out of the role when a tough lefty is on the mound, someone Almora might be better suited to face (137 wRC+ v. LHP last season).

But here’s the thing, even when Happ moves out of the leadoff role in favor of Almora, that doesn’t mean he necessarily has to move out of the lineup altogether. While he may not make too many starts at second base this year absent an injury, against some tougher lefties, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Happ get some extra starts in the outfield in place of Heyward or perhaps Schwarber.

Schwarber continues to adjust against lefties, and, even in Heyward’s best seasons, he had pretty traditional splits (i.e. he struggled more with left-handers than right-handers). Last season, for example, Heyward had a 94 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers, but a 71 wRC+ against lefties. Happ has similar splits, but his were far more productive: 118 wRC+ against righties, 98 wRC+ against lefties. Given another year of development, I wouldn’t be surprised to see his work against lefties improve even more this season.

So, while guys will cycle in and out every day (there are plenty of other ways to get Happ into the lineup, and plenty of other quality players that need to see time, too), how would you feel about his set-up, in general:

Versus left-handed pitchers:

  1. Albert Almora, CF (R)
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B (R)
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (L)
  4. Willson Contreras, C (R)
  5. Kyle Schwarber, LF (L)
  6. Ian Happ, RF (S)
  7. Addison Russell, SS (R)
  8. Javy Baez, 2B (R)
  9. Pitcher

Versus right-handed pitchers:

  1. Ian Happ, CF (S)
  2. Kris Bryant, 3B (R)
  3. Anthony Rizzo, 1B (L)
  4. Willson Contreras, C (R)
  5. Kyle Schwarber, LF (L)
  6. Addison Russell, SS (R)
  7. Jason Heyward, RF (L)
  8. Javy Baez, 2B (R)
  9. Pitcher

There’s plenty of wiggle-room at the bottom of the order, including batting the pitcher eighth, but, in general, I think I can get behind this sort of arrangement. Ben Zobrist and, to a lesser extent, Tommy La Stella will have to work their way in from time to time, but in general, I’d love to see Happ getting more at-bats with this kind of approach.

But how does it make you feel?

Author: Michael Cerami

Michael Cerami covers the Chicago Cubs, Bears, and Bulls at Bleacher Nation. You can find him on Twitter @Michael_Cerami