Good rosters come with good problems. Like when your bench features upwards of three players who could be starters on a number of other teams. Keeping everyone happy enough to perform well while also maximizing in-game team performance while also maximizing long-term performance for each individual … well, it’s good that the Cubs have Joe Maddon.
Speaking of all of that: Joe Maddon reiterated to the Sun-Times that Ian Happ will have a real chance to be the Cubs leadoff hitter this year, right from the word go if it looks like he’s handling it well. Happ is hitting .327/.407/.827 this spring, so if he keeps doing anything close to that when the bell rings, yeah, you’re gonna have to play him everyday at the top of the lineup. Duh, bruh.
As Michael discussed yesterday, if Happ isn’t going to rotate into the infield anymore, then that means that – if he were an everyday starter – he’d have to either permanently move Albert Almora Jr. to the bench (i.e., become the everyday, no matter what starting center fielder), or would have to periodically bump Kyle Schwarber or Jason Heyward to the bench so that Almora could at least face lefties, against whom he’s fared extremely well in his career.
I tend to think that’s what we’d see happen if Happ was an everyday starter – talent must play – but you’d really like to see both Schwarber and Heyward get extended chances against lefties early in the year to see if they’ve found their footing in those match-ups. I don’t think anyone would call it likely (especially for Heyward, who has always had a decent L/R split and who hasn’t hit at all since joining the Cubs), but it’s hard not to give them a chance.
In any case, Happ becoming an everyday outfielder will also have an impact on the available playing time for the reserve infielders. Even if Happ isn’t rotating in at second base, his presence as a locked-in piece of the outfield picture will reduce available starts out there for Ben Zobrist, who will instead have to see more of his time in the infield. That will be a challenge, as Javy Baez becomes more and more entrenched as the starting second baseman. Moreover, without an injury to any of the other three infielders, there won’t be much shuffling at their positions (which could open up a spot by way of Baez sliding to another spot for a day). If Zobrist isn’t going to see much time in the outfield, then, he might not see a whole lot of time at all.
Absent an injury, that is.
And that’s the thing when you talk about these best-laid-plans before the season starts. The reality is that having so much versatility winds up being more valuable for when a starter goes down for a month than for the everyday shuffling that might not be in the plans if Happ is an everyday starter in the outfield. It is at least as likely that Schwarber or Heyward or Baez or Zobrist or whoever (baseball gods forbid) gets hurt at some point in the early going, and any questions you have about playing time will have answered themselves.
For now, though, it sounds like Happ may see time in the outfield (mostly in center field) and the leadoff spot virtually every single game for a while. I tend to think that’ll impact the playing time for Almora and Zobrist the most, but we’ll see what happens in those corner outfield spots.