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 Talk Podcast: Happ Demoted & Bold Predictions


Cubs Talk Podcast: Happ Demoted & Bold Predictions

Baseball is finally here! Luke Stuckmeyer & David Kaplan discuss the surprising move to send Ian Happ to the minors to start the 2019 season and the message it sends to the team (2:00), as well as the report from The Athletic that details the changes the Cubs are making to their day-to-day operations this season (8:00). Finally, Kap and Luke make some bold predictions about what will happen this season, including thoughts on Yu Darvish, Addison Russell, and Joe Maddon (11:45).

Listen to the full podcast here or via the embedded player below:

19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

19 for 19: Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?

We're running down the top 19 questions surrounding the Cubs heading into Opening Day 2019.

Next up: Are the Cubs the best team in the NL Central?

The entire National League is much improved, with superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper staying in the league despite signing with new teams and other really good players moving over from the American League - Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson, etc.

The NL Central is also quite a bit better, with the Reds making big moves to jump into potential contention and join the other four teams in the division that all finished over .500 a year ago.

The Pirates didn't have a busy offseason (do they ever?), but the Cardinals added Paul Goldschmidt (then locked him up long-term) and Andrew Miller while the Brewers filled a major hole by adding Yasmani Grandal and bringing back Mike Moustakas and now they might add Craig Kimbrel, too.

You already know the story about the Cubs' offseason, where their biggest signings were Brad Brach and Daniel Descalso. Coupled with a return to health from some big names (Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, eventually maybe Brandon Morrow), is that enough to vault the Cubs to the top of the division once again?

It's very possible. The Cubs won 95 games last year despite a whole bunch going wrong - from injuries to a grueling schedule to steps back from key young players like Willson Contreras and Kyle Schwarber.

Right now, I like the Cubs' chances at outlasting the rest of the division because of their depth. The bullpen is the only hole on the roster, and there's no guarantee it will even be a sore spot for the team this year given how volatile relievers are from year to year. 

They also have the star power with three of the best all-around players in the division (Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez) and a supporting cast that certainly has the potential to be excellent (Contreras, Schwarber, Descalso, Ian Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, David Bote). 

Then there's the starting rotation. No team in the NL can boast the type of track record the Cubs have 1-through-5. However, track record is not always an indicator of future performance and the Cubs rotation is aging - Jon Lester and Cole Hamels are 35 and only Kyle Hendricks (29) is under 30. 

Also, depth can be erased in a hurry with a few poorly-timed injuries, as the 2018 Cubs proved. And the current bullpen has obviously seen better days.

The Cubs have a chip on their shoulder for 2019 - they're on a mission and feel like they have something to prove. 

Between that sense of urgency, their talent, experience and depth, give me the Cubs to win the NL Central this year, though the Cardinals and Brewers are close behind and the Pirates and Reds might both finish with winning records.

- By Tony Andracki

In a word? Nope! 

I don't know how anyone can definitively say, today on March 25, that the Cubs are the class of the NL Central. A recap of their last 8 months will show that:

1. They did not, actually, win the NL Central last year
2. Their only offseason addition was Daniel Descalso

There's plenty of reasons to believe in the Cubs. They won 95 games without Kris Bryant, Yu Darvish, or Brandon Morrow. They have rotational depth that most teams can't match. Their everyday lineup will almost always feature two bonafide MVP candidates. Still, this is a team that couldn't hold off the Brewers after going into September with a 5-game lead. This is also a team that could not win either game of a do-or-die, 2-game home series. 

As it stands now, another NL Central team matches up well against the Cubs in each facet of the game. The Cardinals and Pirates have equally talented rotations, the Reds offense will hang, and the Brewers bullpen still looks pretty damn good. 

By no means is it a stretch to expect the Cubs to be better than what the Projection-System-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named suggested.  A 3rd place, 80-82 season would be nothing short of a disaster. People would lose their jobs. Still, there was a clearly a complacency issue last season, and it sounds like the Cubs and their fans were shocked by last year's outcome in part because they assumed that the Cubs were the class of the NL Central and were going to fall backwards into the NLCS. Defaulting to that again seems ... curious? A 95-win team doesn't overhaul day-to-day operations if they think the status quo was working. 

Going into 2019, the Cubs aren't the class of the NL Central. The good news is that it doesn't really feel like there *is* a team that could be considered that, anyways. 

- By Cam Ellis 


19. Who will be the Cubs' leadoff hitter?
18. Who's more likely to bounce back - Tyler Chatwood, Brian Duensing or Brandon Kintzler?
17. How different will Joe Maddon be in 2019?
16. Can Cubs keep off-field issues from being a distraction?
15. How can Cubs avoid a late-season fade again?
14. Is this the year young pitchers *finally* come up through the system to help in Chicago?
13. How much will Cubs be able to count on Brandon Morrow?
12. How does the Addison Russell situation shake out?
11. Will Willson Contreras fulfill his potential as the best catcher on the planet?
10. Will the offseason focus on leadership and accountability translate into the season?
9. Will payroll issues bleed into the season?
8. Will Javy Baez put up another MVP-caliber season?
7. Will Jon Lester and Cole Hamels win the battle against Father Time for another season?
6. What should we expect from Kris Bryant Revenge SZN?
5. Do the Cubs have enough in the bullpen?
4. What does Yu Darvish have in store for Year 2?
3. Are the Cubs the class of the NL Central?
2. Is the offense going to be significantly better in 2019?
1. How do the Cubs stay on-mission all year?

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