As the Cubs maneuver through a pivotal offseason, we will break down the current state of the team by sectioning it off into position groups. Here is the ninth installment on the center fielders.
"Who should be patrolling center field on a daily basis for the Cubs?" is an argument that has festered for two years and doesn't look to be tailing off anytime soon.
Ever since Dexter Fowler left via free agency following the 2016 World Series championship, the Cubs have not had a stable, everyday guy at the most important outfield postion.
That probably won't change in 2019, but could we at least move closer toward an everyday solution?
1. Albert Almora Jr.
2. Ian Happ
3. Jason Heyward
4. Kris Bryant
5. *shrug emoji*
Almora is the runaway favorite for the job right now and if anybody is going to get an everyday role in center field at Wrigley, the smart bet is on the first draft pick of the Theo Epstein regime.
Last year, Almora started 94 games in center, followed by Happ with 49 starts and Jason Heyward with 20. That seems like a solid ratio to continue into 2019. After all, Almora is far and away the Cubs' best defender in center field.
The question will be if Almora can hit enough to stay in the lineup on an everyday basis.
Throughout his brief big-league career, the soon-to-be-25-year-old has fared much better against left-handed pitchers (.309 AVG, .816 OPS) than right-handers (.279 AVG, .698 OPS). Against southpaws, he hits for more power, strikes out significantly less and walks at a much higher rate than he does against righties.
Almora looked to be making strides all around at the plate to begin 2018, slashing .319/.357/.438 (.795 OPS) in the first half and actually finding his name in the conversation as a potential All-Star. But he was one of the worst offenders of the Cubs' second-half offensive struggles, hitting .232 with a .267 OBP and .280 SLG (.546 OPS) after the Midsummer Classic. His power completely disappeared (only 6 extra-base hits and 1 homer in 168 at-bats).
As Epstein preaches production over potential this winter, Almora seems to be right in the crosshairs of that conversation.
If he hits enough, pencil in Almora for roughly 2/3 of the starts in center field in 2019. If he continues to hit the ball on the ground at a high rate while failing to work the count, his defense may not be enough to save him if Epstein's mandate takes effect.
Then there's the Happ aspect of this all. Happ is faster than Almora, but is far less experienced in the outfield and doesn't get the elite breaks or take the same routes as Almora in center. But with more experience (especially at Wrigley Field), it's possible he can close the defensive gap, at least slightly.
But where Happ may have a leg up is on the offensive end, especially if the Cubs once again have a need for run production from this lineup. The 24-year-old switch-hitter saw a noticeable dip in power last year after his rookie season (15 HRs vs. 24 HRs) and struck out at an astronomical rate (36.1 percent), but he also boosted his walk rate to an elite level (15.2 percent).
Happ obviously needs to cut down on that alarming whiff rate, but the enticing blend of power and patience at the plate could prompt the Cubs to pencil him into the lineup on a regular basis. The question would be where he'd play in the field and center has the easiest potential avenue to playing time, especially since the Cubs seem to have given up on Happ as a second baseman.
Heyward figures to get some time in center field once again this year as the Cubs opt to go with Ben Zobrist or Bryant in right field at times. Bryant could also man center in some rare cases, as he was scheduled to do in September last year before a rainout in D.C. washed away those plans.
Beyond that, the Cubs do have Johnny Field (yes, that's a real name), who has extensive experience in center field in the minor leagues and even started 10 games there for the Tampa Bay Rays last year. They also have Mark Zagunis on the 40-man roster, but the 26-year-old outfielder has actually played more catcher (19 games) in his professional career than center (9 games).
The Cubs aren't going to be signing any big outfielder that will come in and take over the everyday role in center field, so this depth chart is what it is at the moment.
But this spring will be very interesting as Happ and Almora seemingly go head-to-head vying for a potential everyday job in center field, though both players have some serious holes in their game they need to address.
The bottom line
This is Almora's job to lose, as Happ could still find his way into the lineup in a corner outfield spot or possibly even second base if the Cubs go down that path again with the former infielder.
Don't sleep on either guy, but expect this CF puzzle to wind up in much the same fashion it did in 2018, though the Cubs are obviously hoping for better results as a team.Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Cubs easily on your device.