Explaining the Ian Happ-Albert Almora Jr. lineup conundrum

Explaining the Ian Happ-Albert Almora Jr. lineup conundrum

The Cubs aren't planning on giving up on Ian Happ anytime soon.

Nor do they plan on writing Albert Almora Jr.'s name in permanent marker in the leadoff spot every night.

The leadoff spot and center field have become polarizing topics among Cubs fans, and they go hand-in-hand.

The lineup has been pretty stable to begin 2018: Happ leads off and plays center against right-handed starting pitchers while Almora leads off and plays center against lefties. There have been some exceptions, of course, but that's the general rule of thumb. 

There are many reasons behind why Joe Maddon writes his lineups out this way, but the most prevalent is matchups.

Just because the Cubs scored 13 runs on one day when Almora led off against a lefty doesn't mean Maddon will automatically keep the lineup the same the next day against a righty.

"He did really well [Wednesday] because there were some really good matchups for him and there are others coming up," Maddon said.

Maddon also pointed to the fact Almora has been feeling under the weather this week, comparing the young outfielder to a "Gumby" color Wednesday night.

The Cubs manager typically makes his lineup a day or two ahead of time, letting players know the day before they're supposed to be playing. It's all based on the other team's starting pitcher and what kind of defense the Cubs want out on the field behind their own starter.

"I think it's wise to stick with the plan," Maddon said. "If you go willy-nilly all the time — in this game, if you just wanna deal with emotional success on a daily basis — I think you're gonna go wrong a lot."

This Almora playing time debate was a hot topic of discussion last last season, as well, as Cubs fans wondered why he wasn't starting every day.

A huge part of the reason why Cubs fans see the best of Almora so often is how Maddon and Co. deploy him. 

Almora struggles against sliders and other breaking pitches from righties, but typically finds success when facing some right-handers who throw a lot of first-pitch fastballs.

It's more complicated than that and the Cubs won't divulge their entire gameplan, of course, but the simple math is: Almora is an aggressive hitter who swings early in counts and that style can match up well with a pitcher who tries to get ahead early with his fastball instead of a breaking pitch like a slider.

"The righty that you didn't want him to see a couple years ago which is kinda black and white is becoming more gray," Maddon said. "He's made some really good adjustments. He's gonna be that [every day player] eventually, 'cause he knows...what he has to do to play every day."

Almora has a career .299 on-base percentage and .709 OPS against righties, and that's with the Cubs carefully choosing which right-handed pitchers he faces.

The Cubs aren't just going to banish Happ to the bench because he struck out a bunch to start the season. This is the first time he's ever been playing Major League Baseball in March or April.

Happ is still only 23 years old. There's a lot of development left. 

But the Cubs already like what they've seen from him — a switch-hitter with power (26 homers in 401 big-league ABs) who will take his walks and has positional versatility. Happ has the speed to play center field and is still learning the position after spending much of his time at second base prior to last season.

For all of Almora's defensive prowess, he just does not possess elite speed, which will always limit his range in center, even with the incredible breaks and routes he takes.

Yes, Happ should've dove Tuesday in a big moment in the series opener against the Pirates, but he also was positioned in left-center against a hitter that often goes the other way and had to run a long way for this ball:

Some fans were also upset with Happ's effort on Cervelli's triple in the second inning Thursday. But that ball was tailing away from Happ due to a howling wind blowing directly out to right-center and he was already running full-speed with the unforgiving brick wall rapidly approaching.

Almora is a much more natural defender in center given that Happ is still learning the position, but Almora doesn't automatically make these catches.

The Cubs are playing the long game, with eyes on another World Series championship. They won't overreact to a couple weeks' worth of games in March/April to determine how guys should play.

"As you move forward into the season, things are going to happen," Maddon said. "Somebody's gonna get hurt. More playing time just based on probably injuries as much as anything else. Albert's been wonderful. They all get it.

"Actually, I addressed that in my first meeting in spring training this year. Talking about that specifically where I think the guys all have one common goal and that's to have that pile-on at the end of the season. Play the last game of the season and win it." 

David Bote's unique perspective on the rise of the Cubs

David Bote's unique perspective on the rise of the Cubs

CLEVELAND — David Bote hugged and high-fived so many people he didn't even know.

In other words, he was just like every other Cubs fan.

Bote has been here since the beginning — an 18th round pick in 2012, Theo Epstein's first draft with the Cubs front office.

You better believe Bote was there at the end, too.

He sat down the right field line in Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, cheering on a gaggle of former teammates and a bunch of guys he had never played with.

Bote understands the family dynamic fans experience at Wrigley Field, celebrating with people he'd never speak to again.

And all along, he never told them who he was or that he had played with Kris Bryant and Addison Russell and Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. in the minors.

Bote is a Colorado native who got the call to the big leagues last weekend when Ben Zobrist went on the disabled list and played his first game in front of family and friends at Coors Field. To make it even sweeter, Bote doubled in his first MLB at-bat.

"I thought [Rockies CF Charlies] Blackmon was gonna catch it," Bote said. "I saw him kinda coastin' to it and I was like, 'No way you're about to catch this.' And then I realized he was playing it off the wall.

"I got to second base and turned around, all 24 of those guys are standing up on the top step, raising their hands, giving me the peace sign. I don't want to say it was a relief, but it's more of kinda like that jittery feeling of 'That was pretty sweet.'" 

Bote, 25, understands he's not up here to play a huge role — he's only recorded 5 trips to the plate in 4 games — but he knows the 2018 Cubs have a World Series or bust mindset and he wants to do all he can to get the team there once again.

He's never been considered a top prospect and played all over the field in the Cubs minor-league system — every position but catcher and center field (yes, he's even pitched 7 innings) — and realizes how hard it is for a utility guy to even make it to the majors.

"It's crazy because coming from where I have in my baseball career as a guy who's been bounced around or not looked at as what people say as an organizational player," Bote said. "Obviously the Cubs had belief in me and I've had belief in myself too of making it here and blocking out the outside noise.

"It was tough at times. And then to make your debut and play in the big leagues and then to be with these guys and be competing at the highest level for the highest prize in the game is something I can't even put into words.

"I'm super grateful, humbled and blessed to have been part of it and to make it and to be here with this club especially is a very humbling experience."

Bote has been at Wrigley a bunch, including the World Series contest plus Game 2 of the 2016 NLDS — where he celebrated Travis Wood's homer — as well as a memorable regular-season game in July 2015. The kid sitting in front of Bote was crying after the Cubs blew a lead and surrendered four runs to the Colorado Rockies in the top of the ninth inning on that July 27th evening. To help ease his pain, Bote told the kid they were about to witness a Kris Bryant walk-off...which is exactly what happened.

But for all the times he's been to Wrigley as a fan, Bote has never once stepped foot on the hallowed ground of the diamond.

That will change Thursday when he will finally get an opportunity to experience it as a player in those historic pinstripes and blue "C".

And you better believe Bote's got that day circled on his calendar:

"There's no better place on Earth."

Is this catch by Reed Johnson the best of the last decade?

NBC Sports Chicago

Is this catch by Reed Johnson the best of the last decade?

Ten years ago today, Reed Johnson had one of the best catches in a Cubs uniform.

On April 26, 2008, the Cubs outfielder made a spectacular diving catch off of Nationals' Felipe Lopez's liner to center field. Johnson had to run to his right in what felt like a mile to track down. He then dove for it on the warning track going head first into the wall. Remember this?

How he caught it? Not sure. And how he didn't get hurt? Don't know that either.

But a lot of members on the Cubs at the time raved about the catch (Len Kasper's call was also phenomenal), and joked that they're happy it didn't happen on W. Addison St.

"At Wrigley Field they might have had to call a timeout to find his head in the vines," manager Lou Piniella said after that game.

There have been some outstanding catches since that catch in 2008. Jason Heyward's diving grab in San Francisco, Javier Baez's catch against the Miami Marlins where he dove into the crowd, Anthony Rizzo's tarp catches. There are a handful of them. 

But where does this one rank?