The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

value_of_tommy_la_stella_slide.jpg
AP

The value of a unicorn like Tommy La Stella

A Cubs player turned to his right, saw Tommy La Stella sitting in a chair in the Miller Park visiting locker room, smiled and said:

"Dude, you're the best pinch-hitter ever."

La Stella laughed it off and resumed watching The Masters. 

"Best Pinch-Hitter Ever" may not rival "Greatest Leadoff Hitter of All-Time" in terms of importance to a Cubs team with World Series expectations, but La Stella's role has always been under the radar.

The 29-year-old utility man has only tallied 353 at-bats over his four seasons in a Cubs uniform, but he's been a mercenary of sorts for manager Joe Maddon, who can deploy La Stella at the most opportune times in a game.

He appeared in all but one of the Cubs' first 10 contests in 2018, though had just one start. Still, he's gone 3-for-8 in a pinch-hitting capacity, smacking two doubles with a pair of RBI. 

Those numbers would be even higher if not for a Milwaukee official scorer who ruled La Stella's hard-hit grounder an error Sunday, though La Stella's aforementioned teammate clearly disagreed.

Last year, La Stella posted a ridiculous .290/.488/.419 slash line (.908 OPS) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-31 with four doubles, seven RBI and 10 walks against only five strikeouts.

"He knows what he's doing," Maddon said. "He knows how to do it. He doesn't try to force anything. He's not trying to appease me or anybody else with his preparation. He just prepares, which I love.

"He's a different cat. He's a very valuable commodity in today's game, in the National League, especially because of his pinch-hitting abilities. I anticipate and believe he will remain this way for several years to come."

Once upon a time, Maddon said La Stella may be the best pure hitter on the Cubs roster, using that as rationale for why the infielder was hitting fifth in the 2015 wild-card playoff in Pittsburgh.

Then there's the uber-popular "3 a.m." nickname that's taken on a life of its own after a comment Maddon made in spring training a few years ago, saying La Stella could wake up at 3 a.m. and hit line drives all over the field.

And there was the hilarious prank war between La Stella and Theo Epstein/Jed Hoyer in spring training, showing there were absolutely no hard feelings after the August 2016 incident where La Stella left the organization and nearly quit baseball.

While the rest of baseball is focused on launch angles and strikeouts are coming in record numbers, La Stella has stayed true to who he is as a hitter, sticking with a throwback style that makes him something of a unicorn in today's game.

He struck out only 18 times in 73 games last year, ranking as the 17th-toughest hitter to strike out in the game.

Among players with at least 150 plate appearances in 2017, La Stella was one of just seven MLB hitters who had more walks than strikeouts, joining the ranks of NL MVP candidates Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto and Anthony Rendon, among others.

"He has such an old-school swing," Maddon said. "He's tension-free, he's flat through the zone, he doesn't try to lift anything, he's got a good eye, he'll work a count.

"He's unique in a lot of ways, meaning that he's not into the launch angles, not trying to power the ball. He's into using the whole field. He's got a really great base and he doesn't overthink it, that's for sure.

"He doesn't swing too often. He's not out there taking extra BP. He doesn't overanalyze himself. For me, a lot of old school tenants about the way he hits and I think we all appreciate that."

With Ian Happ's ascension, where does that leave Albert Almora Jr.?

albert_almora_jr_ian_happ_slide.jpg
USA TODAY

With Ian Happ's ascension, where does that leave Albert Almora Jr.?

MIAMI — Now that Ian Happ has emerged as a serious contender for the center field and leadoff role, where does that leave Albert Almora Jr.?

The way last season ended, Almora was a popular breakout pick entering spring training, but Happ has since stolen the spotlight with Almora fading into the background.

The Happ Hype continued into the first pitch of the regular season when he immediately gave the Cubs the lead off Jose Urena by smoking a liner into the right field bleachers.

Happ didn't reach base the rest of the night, but when Almora came in for defensive purposes, Happ remained in center with Almora in left.

Speaking before Thursday's opener, Theo Epstein said he had a chat with Happ immediately after last season and laid out how there was a real opportunity for the second-year player in center field.

But then for Friday's Game 2, there was Almora leading off and playing center field with Happ sitting on the bench.

The simple answer is: it's a fluid situation, as Joe Maddon explained. Both guys will play center field while the other plays left and both will platoon in the leadoff spot for now.

Almora is Maddon's choice as a leadoff hitter against left-handed pitchers and Happ gets the call against right-handed pitchers most of the time. But then again, that could even change, as Happ is a switch-hitter and capable of doing damage against lefties.

Either way, all the people who spent the final two months of 2017 clamoring for Almora to play every day won't get their wish just yet.

"Albert made a lot of strides during the course of last season," Epstein said. "He really started to lock in against right-handed pitching and laid off the chase slider and improved his approach against those guys. 

"I'm excited to see what he can do with a more refined approach over the course of a whole season. He's actually made a lot of improvements this spring, too. Moving around really well right now."

Happ and Kyle Schwarber have been lauded for the kind of shape they got in over the offseason, but Almora also slimmed down a bit and got his body ready to take the next step.

But for Almora, it's more mental than physical right now.

The Cubs want to see him work the count better and continue to develop against both right-handed pitchers and left-handed. To this point in his career, Almora has mostly been the lesser end of a platoon.

Even when Almora was hot in the second half of 2017, he still didn't walk much. He hit .343 with an .873 OPS in 143 plate appearances from July 4 onward, but in that time, he drew just two free passes.

Since he made his big-league debut, Almora ranks 295th out of 341 in baseball in walk rate among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. 

Even if he can mash against lefties (career .881 OPS), it's hard to continually pencil in a leadoff hitter who does not take walks.

Regardless of what Happ does, the Cubs have a clear vision of what development is for Almora.

"Just continue to improve his organization of the strike zone that he really learns to not chase the slider," Maddon said. "That's it. As he continues to get better at that and accepting more walks, he's gonna become a very dangerous hitter with power."

How Ian Happ emerged as key to Cubs lineup

How Ian Happ emerged as key to Cubs lineup

MIAMI — The Cubs are not surprised by anything Ian Happ does...including knocking the first pitch of the 2018 MLB season into the right field bleachers.

In fact, Kyle Schwarber said there was a feeling in the Cubs dugout that something special was going to happen with Happ leading off the season in Miami.

It was special, alright. 

The last time a player hit the first pitch of the MLB season out for a homer was 1986 when Dwight Evans did it for the Boston Red Sox. Among current Cubs position players, only Ben Zobrist was alive when Evans turned that feat.

When it came time for Schwarber to launch a ball high into the Miami orbit, Happ responded in kind with an epic dugout reaction:

"I love watching him hit," Happ said. "I love watching him up there. He's a special hitter."

And of course, Happ also had some fun at the "expense" of Bleacher Nation's Michael Cerami:

But Happ's big day was not just the product of one good swing that happened to work out. He spent much of spring in the leadoff spot, getting used to a new role. 

That prepartion helped him feel comfortable stepping up to the plate under the South Florida sun Thursday.

"Definitely helped me get used to it, especially having that first at-bat of the game," Happ said. "It's gonna be a process. I felt great out there.

"Just gave away a few of those at-bats later. I think I learned more from the other four at-bats than I did that first one."

That last sentence right there is exactly why the Cubs are so high on Happ.

Instead of talking up his homer, he chose to focus on the four at-bats where he failed to reach base, including three strikeouts.

The Cubs bet big on Happ in 2015, making him the 9th overall pick in the MLB Draft. At the time, that was seen as a bit of a reach for a player without a set position. There was also a perceived body language problem — the dude hardly ever smiles on the field — and the state of the Cincinnati baseball program was in turmoil, Theo Epstein said.

"There was kind of a false narrative about Ian Happ out there, so our scouts did a great job of digging deeper," Epstein said. "Daniel Carte, the area scout, really got to know him well, really saw through some of the labels that were floating around about him. We got to meet him personally at Wrigley when he worked out for us.

"Give credit to Daniel Carte and [amateur scouting director] Matt Dorey for really going to bat for him. Actually, I knew Sean Casey really well, so I was able to talk to him, who had a personal relationship with [Happ]. He swore by the kid as well.

"I think he surprised a lot of people who just went by what they heard about him in college. He's definitely someone who's mature beyond his years in terms of doing what is necessary to get better and being really honest with himself and self-aware, making intelligent adjustments and working hard to put them into play. His makeup is a big plus for him."

When the offseason began shortly after the Cubs were knocked out of the postseason by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, Happ was a popular choice among pundits and fans alike to be traded for pitching.

Fast forward six months and it was Happ that became the hottest name in Cubs camp, overshadowing Schwarber's body transformation and Willson Contreras' ascension into superstardom.

That progression for Happ came as a result of a conversation with Epstein shortly after the season ended, where he was asked to get in the best shape possible — something that was already on his list of offseason goals.

Happ was already in very good shape in 2017, but the 23-year-old spent the winter making sure he could handle a full big-league season...in center field.

"I just recommended that he get into the most athletic shape that he could be and to get as quick as he could possibly be, as twitchy," Epstein said. "Because there could be a real opportunity for him in center field.

"And once you're in that shape, you can move all over [the field]. And of course, he took it to heart. He already had a plan; that's already what he was planning on doing and he ran with it and had a great offseason."

Against right-handers now, it seems Happ is the Cubs' clear choice at leadoff and in center field. That may switch against lefties, when Albert Almora Jr. may man center and set the table in the lineup, but Happ's ability to switch-hit is a point in his favor, as well.

Plus, when Almora was brought in for a defensive replacement for Schwarber in Thursday's season opener, he went to left field while Happ stayed in center. Last year when Almora and Happ played the outfield together, Almora was almost always the one roaming center field.

"You saw him coming to camp in great shape," Joe Maddon said. "That was obvious. You saw him really want to become a better centerfielder. We've seen that.

"He likes the idea of leading off. That's also a condition of him doing well. I think I'm seeing him make better adjustments with two strikes. He doesn't take that big old hack — all or nothing — with two strikes.

"This is his first full year. I mean, this is Opening Day. The guy had a great year last year, [hitting 24 homers] in 300-something plate apperances. Give him a chance to get his feet on the ground. Regardless of how this turns out right now, it doesn't matter. This guy's gonna be great for many years to come."