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." 

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

Cubs free agent focus: Hyun-Jin Ryu

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

As the Cubs look to fill out their starting rotation, it’s extremely unlikely Gerrit Cole will be joining the North Siders via free agency.

Or Stephen Strasburg.

Or Madison Bumgarner.

As the top starters available, Cole, Strasburg and Bumgarner are set to receive lucrative contracts out of the Cubs’ price range. But if Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to acquire a top-of-the-rotation arm, left-hander Hyun-Jin Ryu is a much more affordable option.

Ryu was one of the best starters in baseball last season, winning the National League ERA title (2.32) en route to being named a Cy Young Award finalist. He made 29 starts and tossed 182 2/3 innings, the second-best totals of his career.

The question with Ryu isn’t whether he’ll pitch well; he holds a career 2.98 ERA and 1.164 WHIP in 126 games (125 starts). The question each season is whether he’ll stay healthy.

Ryu missed all of 2015 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder. He returned in July 2016, making a single start before hitting the shelf with left elbow tendinitis. He underwent a debridement procedure — like Yu Darvish last offseason — in September 2016.

Granted, Ryu has largely remained healthy since 2017. He made 24 starts that season, missing a little time with contusions in his left hip and left foot. A right groin strain kept him out for two months in 2018, though he posted a dazzling 1.97 ERA in 15 starts.

Nonetheless, teams will be wary of what they offer Ryu this offseason. The last thing you want is to sign a pitcher in his mid-30s to a long-term deal, only for him to go down with a serious arm issue. Ryu hasn't had any serious arm issues since 2016, but any injury concern is valid for the soon-to-be 33-year-old.

All negatives aside, there’s a lot to like about Ryu. He excels at inducing soft contact and ranked in the top four percent in baseball last season in average exit velocity-against (85.3 mph). Ryu doesn’t walk many batters (3.3 percent walk rate in 2019; 5.4 percent career) and strikes out a solid number (22.5 percent rate in 2019; 22 percent career).

Signing Ryu would give the Cubs three lefty starters, but that’s been the case since mid-2018, when they acquired Cole Hamels (who recently signed with the Braves). The rotation would have more certainty moving forward, too, as Jose Quintana will hit free agency next offseason. Jon Lester could as well, though he has a vesting option for 2022 if he tosses 200 innings next season.

The Cubs hope young arms Adbert Alzolay and top prospect Brailyn Marquez will contribute in the rotation for years to come. Alzolay may be on an innings limit next season and Marquez is at least a season away from making his MLB debut.

The Cubs have a rotation opening now and need to bridge the gap to their young arms for the next few seasons. Every free agent comes with question marks, and Ryu is no exception, but he is a frontline starter when healthy. He’d be a solid addition to the Cubs staff, and it won't take as big of a deal to sign him as others.

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Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

Cubs free agent focus: Will Harris

With Hot Stove season underway, NBC Sports Chicago is taking a look at some of MLB’s top free agents and how they’d fit with the Cubs.

The Cubs are looking for bullpen help this offseason. Enter Astros free agent right-hander Will Harris.

Harris has quietly been one of the game’s best relievers since 2015. In 309 games (297 innings), the 35-year-old holds a 2.36 ERA and 0.987 WHIP. Over that same period, his ERA ranks third among relievers with at least 250 innings pitched, trailing Zack Britton (1.89) and Aroldis Chapman (2.16).

2019 was one of Harris' finest seasons yet, as he posted a pristine 1.50 ERA and 0.933 WHIP in 68 appearances. Of the 60 innings he pitched last season, 49 2/3 of them came in innings 7-9, an area the Cubs bullpen needs the most help.

Cubs relievers posted a 3.98 ERA last season (No. 8 in MLB), but that number is deceiving. The bullpen was OK in low and medium-leverage spots — as defined by FanGraphs — posting a 3.19 ERA (tied for No. 2 in MLB). But in high leverage spots, they sported a woeful 7.92 ERA (No. 24 in MLB) and a 15.4 percent walk rate (tied for last in MLB).

"It was a real interesting year in the 'pen," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at his end-of-season press conference. "Our inability to pitch in high-leverage situations was a clear problem and was a contributing factor — we had the third-worst record in all of baseball behind just the Tigers and Orioles in combined 1 and 2-run games.

"Our inability to pitch in high-leverage moments kind of haunted us throughout the year, and that’s something that I have to do a better job of finding options for."

Those walks often spelled doom for the Cubs. Fans remember all too well the three-straight free passes Steve Cishek handed out on Sept. 10 against the Padres, the final of which was a walk-off (literally). David Phelps and Cishek combined to walk three-straight Cardinals on Sept. 20, two of whom came around to score. The Cubs lost that game 2-1; there are plenty more similar instances.

Harris, meanwhile, walked 14 batters (6.1 percent walk rate) in 2019 — 15 if you count the one he allowed in 12 postseason appearances. His career walk rate is 6.2 percent.

Four Cubs late-inning relievers are free agent this winter in Cishek, Brandon Kintzler, Brandon Morrow and Pedro Strop. Cishek and Kintzler had solid 2019 seasons, while Strop had his worst season as a Cub. Morrow hasn’t pitched since July 2018, but he and the Cubs are working on a minor league deal, according to WSCR’s Bruce Levine. Strop has expressed his desire to return next season.

Harris regressing in 2020 is a concern. Relievers are the most volatile players in baseball, and Harris could see his performance sag in 2020 after pitching an extra month last season. Teams will have to trust his track record and assume a regression isn't forthcoming.

But assuming Cishek, Kintzler, Morrow and Strop all won’t return in 2020, the Cubs have a couple late-inning relief vacancies. Harris is one of the better available options, and he’d help the Cubs cut down on the walks dished out by their bullpen.

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