Ian Happ

From Akiyama to Almora, center field remains primary focus for Cubs this offseason

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USA TODAY

From Akiyama to Almora, center field remains primary focus for Cubs this offseason

When asked how he would feel if the Cubs went into spring training with the roster as it stands right now, Theo Epstein pointed out the need for more pitching and then singled out the center field position.

"If we went more status quo, we need someone to step up in center field," Epstein said last week. "We have two young players who are still trying to establish themselves as more full-time players in Ian Happ and Albert Almora Jr., so it would be an opportunity for one of those guys - or a combination of those guys - to grab the center field role and then we'd need somebody to step up in the leadoff role."

The leadoff spot is another issue altogether, but Epstein's comments on center field - and calling out Almora and Happ by name - underscores the front office's desire to upgrade that position this offseason.

In an ideal world, the Cubs would add a guy like Shogo Akiyama who could potentially lock down center field *and* leadoff on a near-everyday basis. But the market for the 31-year-old Japanese outfielder may wind up climbing out of the Cubs' range as they work with budget constraints for a second straight offseason.

The Cubs can't talk about specific free agents, but they did acknowledge a sit-down with Akiyama this winter.

"Yeah, we met with him," Jed Hoyer said. "Listen, a lot of teams were involved. Obviously he's a very good player and he's gonna have a good role on a major-league team this year, but I can't comment beyond that."

Akiyama hits left-handed and has posted a career .301 average and .376 on-base percentage in Japan. Those numbers have gone up recently, as he's eclipsed a .385 OBP each of the last five seasons. He also has some pop (three straight 20-homer seasons in NPB) with speed and good defense, but the latter skills are reportedly declining.

Akiyama will be 32 in April and stands as the ultimate wild-card with the combination of a declining skillset, his age and the unanswerable question of how his game will translate to MLB. But he checks a lot of boxes for the Cubs and would be a seemingly perfect fit on paper, if the price is right.

If the Cubs don't add Akiyama, the free agent center field options are limited. Jarrod Dyson and Jon Jay are available, but both will be in their age-35 seasons. Billy Hamilton would be a defensive upgrade and his speed would provide a new dynamic to the Cubs roster, but he's struggled to hit enough to warrant everyday at-bats and certainly doesn't get on base enough to solve the leadoff issue (career .297 OBP).

There's the trade route, as the Cubs could find a long-term answer at center field in a deal with another team. Internally, they could also opt to move Jason Heyward back to center, but Epstein admitted last week the Cubs would prefer to keep the veteran in right field, playing alongside a good defensive center fielder.

Thus, a combination of Happ and Almora remains as a likely course of action for 2020.

Happ, 25, spent most of 2019 in the minor leagues working on his swing and finished on a hot streak to post a stellar overall line in 58 big-league games — .264/.333/.564 (.898 OPS). As a switch-hitter with power and patience at the plate, Happ could be in line for a lot more playing time if his refined offensive approach is here to stay and he continues to cut down on strikeouts. (That would also make him more enticing to other teams in a trade.)

Almora's future is a bit murkier. The first pick of the Epstein regime, Almora will be 26 in April and saw a decline in his game across the board in 2019. It was easily the worst offensive season of his career and also goes down as the worst defensively (-5 Defensive Runs Saved). Add it all up and Almora posted a -0.7 WAR in 130 games (363 plate appearances).

His ground ball percentage soared once again and his line drive percentage has steadily declined since his rookie season in 2016. He still makes a good amount of contact, but most of that is on a pitcher's pitch and he rarely takes a walk or works the count — he ranked 211th out of 241 hitters in pitches per plate appearance last season.

Still, the Cubs chose to tender Almora a contract last month as he enters his first year of arbitration (which is projected to pay him roughly $1.8 million, according to MLB Trade Rumors).

"I think he's a real bounceback candidate," Epstein said. "It's important that he recognizes where he is in his career. We were open with him about that — the offense hasn't come along yet quite the way we expected it to, but we think he absolutely has the potential. We think he's better than he's shown at the big-league level.

"With some adjustments in approach, I think there's plenty more there. He's been making things a little too easy on the pitcher sometimes, putting pitchers' pitches into play and hitting the ball on the ground to the pull side. He's got the potential to drive the ball through the gaps and use the whole field.

"With his contact ability, it's one of the things you can't teach — just an innate ability to get the bat on the ball. That's a valued skill in today's game and so with some slight adjustments, he could be a very, very interesting offensive player. Who he is now — I understand the frustration with the production — but I think there's a real chance for more in there with him. I think he believes that. He's hard at work this offseason trying to untap that potential."

We saw a flash of that potential to begin the season, as he posted solid numbers (.747 OPS, 7 HR, 20 RBI) in April and May. His production cratered from there with a .242 OBP, .560 OPS and only 8 extra-base hits (5 homers, 3 doubles) and 12 RBI the rest of the way (77 games). He walked just 7 times in four months.

That continues a disturbing trend of poor second-half production for Almora. In 2018, a strong surge to end the first half actually had him in the potential All-Star conversation with a .318 average and .795 OPS. But after the Midsummer Classic that season, Almora hit just .232 with a .546 OPS, 1 homer and 7 RBI in 66 games.

All told, here are Almora's splits over the last two seasons:

First half:

.286/.321/.420 (.741 OPS), 12 HR, 53 RBI

Second half:

.220/.252/.297 (.549 OPS), 5 HR, 20 RBI

Consider the second half is a smaller sample size for Almora each of the past two seasons, but that's also of his own doing. Prolonged slumps led to Heyward moving to center field and decreased playing time for Almora (especially when Nicholas Castellanos joined the squad this past August).

So how does Almora turn things around? It's all approach — Epstein doesn't see a need for a major overhaul in the outfielder's mechanics this winter.

"He's got a pretty clean swing; his swing works," Epstein said. "That freakish contact ability — the ability to put virtually any pitch in play — can work against you unless you have the right approach. You're putting early count pitcher's pitches in play because you can. But with shifting and today's defenses, that's a hard way to get on base a lot."

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.

With Cubs at a crossroads, Ian Happ looms as an intriguing piece this winter

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USA TODAY

With Cubs at a crossroads, Ian Happ looms as an intriguing piece this winter

As the Cubs begin their offseason of change, Ian Happ looms as one of the team's most intriguing pieces.

Do you trade the 25-year-old switch-hitter who can play six defensive positions, has four years of team control left and loads of potential? Or do you keep him and move into 2020 with him as part of your offensive core?

This season didn't exactly play out the way Happ — or the Cubs — would've liked for him in Year 3, but he does have one thing going for him that nobody else can say: He will be the reigning National League Player of the Week for the next six months.

Happ hit .455 with a 1.636 OPS, 4 homers and 10 RBI over the final week of the 2019 regular season, earning the weekly accolade alongside Gerrit Cole in the American League.

Sure, Happ was only playing as much as he was because the Cubs were out of it (he made six straight starts to end the year, but started just six of the previous 24 games). But he was still performing at a high level against a Cardinals team fighting for the division.

The last week is a nice way to tie a bow on a season in which Happ made a ton of adjustments despite sporadic playing time and four months in the minor leagues. He cut his strikeout rate by 11.1 percent (down to a reasonable 25 percent) while still walking at a solid clip (9.6 percent) and actually saw an uptick in power (.300 ISO).

Happ has a much smaller sample size obviously, but he was actually more productive as big-league hitter this season (127 wRC+, .898 OPS) than Paul Goldschmidt (116 wRC+, .821 OPS), the No. 3 hitter on the division-winning Cardinals.

Happ also rated highly by defensive metrics while playing — and making starts at — six different positions. Add it all up and he reached the same 1.5 WAR he had in 2018, though in 84 fewer games. 

"I've always had the confidence that I could put together those types of at-bats," Happ said on the final weekend of the season, "and to able to do it at any point in the season, it's a good bounce. But to be able to do it heading into the offseason just provides some confidence.

"Where I was [in early-September] to where my numbers sit now is nice. I feel like I've made a lot of progress. Been a lot of improvement and some of the ancillary numbers that people were worried about, they're where they should be and they're more normal, more regulated. I thought last year they were inflated. To have some of those numbers in the right spots and see the success on the field is important."

But how much of Happ's 2019 numbers are the result of a hot streak at the end of the season that may have inflated (to borrow his word) the overall line? That's the question the Cubs have to ask themselves this winter and come up with some sort of solid answer. 

On the one hand, maybe the end of the season came at the wrong time for Happ. Maybe he would've been able to continue some level of hot production for a little while longer if he was seeing consistent playing time.

On the other hand, maybe a slump was right around the corner and the season just happened to end while Happ's numbers were at a peak.

The key lies in those "ancillary numbers" Happ mentioned, which are all contact-related.

He made a lot more contact on pitches inside the strike zone this year compared to 2018 (82.1 percent to 70.2 percent) and he made more contact overall (71.7 percent vs. 63.5 percent). We already touched on the strikeouts — it's difficult for any hitter to be productive when they're whiffing more than 1/3 of the time (36.1 percent in 2018).

"I think last year a lot, I was chasing swings, chasing feels," Happ said. "When you spend the season doing that, it's a long, very difficult mental battle and then it's very difficult to compete in the game because when you come down to it, it's you vs. the pitcher. And if you can flush the rest of that and just go compete, you have a better chance than if you're trying to chase some sort of feeling that gets in the way of performance."

He feels like he did a much better job of simply competing this season, especially in the final stretch. Confidence is so important in this game and Happ began the fall with a great feeling about where he was at personally even if his team wasn't getting an opportunity to chase another championship ring.

"If you're 1-for-4 or 1-for-5 in a game, but your first at-bat was the hit, you leave the park not feeling so good," Happ said. "But if your last at-bat was a hit, you leave the park feeling OK."

Happ chalked his 2019 up as a year of growth for him, both personally and as a player. He dealt with a lot of frustration in those first few months down in the minor leagues, knowing he wasn't able to do contribute to the big-league club and help the Cubs find some consistency.

"When you've been with this group for a couple years and believe in these guys and they're your friends and colleagues and the guys you want to go to work with every day and then not being able to do that for a while — not being able to be here with the team and feel like you helped enough — that's the tough part," he said. "But I feel like I'm a better baseball player leaving this year than I was leaving last year. You just take that and move on and see what you can do with it next year."

In the small sample size, it seems clear Happ is correct in his assessment that he will enter this winter a better player than he was a year ago. A lot of other teams might agree and look at his age, skillset, versatility and team control (he's not a free agent until after the 2023 season) and put in a call to Theo Epstein's front office about a possible offseason trade. 

Or the Cubs could hold on to Happ, valuing all those positive assets and believing the production has caught up to his potential. At the moment, nobody has a stranglehold on the everyday centerfield job (unless Jason Heyward's move there was more than just a couple-month adjustment for the sake of the 2019 team).

It's one of many tough questions the Cubs will have to answer this offseason.