Cubs leadoff man to be named later: Ian Happ

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SURPRISE, Ariz. — It looks like Ian Happ has won the Cubs’ leadoff job. At least the first shot at it.

“You’ll probably see him there a bit,” manager Joe Maddon said. “I haven’t finalized anything, but [it’s] a combination of what we thought in the beginning, and then he went out and grabbed it and has gotten better.”

A bit.

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Happ, who made his 15th start of the spring in the leadoff spot Wednesday, has embraced the audition for the job from the start and has been one of the Cubs’ most consistent, productive hitters in camp.

“I think he has answered that he’s capable of doing this, and furthermore, he wants to do this,” Maddon said.

Said Happ: “It’s exciting. I’ve felt really comfortable there all spring, and I’m really enjoying the role. I’m excited to get to the season and start getting on base for these guys for real.”

Maddon, who had talked about a mix-and-match approach to the role early in camp, said others still could rotate into the spot “based on days off and matchups on occasion.”

But the switch-hitting Happ was all but anointed when Maddon referenced his practice with the Rays in choosing his closer without ever publicizing it.

“It’s almost like not naming the closer when you go closer-by-committee,” he said. “I want to say, ‘Let it be leadoff-by-committee as of right now. Let’s just try to make our best choice and see where that plays us.

“And if somebody wants to become the closer, go ahead and become the closer. If somebody wants to become the leadoff hitter, go become the leadoff hitter.”

Albert Almora Jr., who has been sharing center field with Happ this spring, could rotate in against left-handers, and versatile veteran Ben Zobrist could be part of the mix at times, too.

But Happ believes that given the chance early, he can run with the role as the every-day man at the top, the way Dexter Fowler nailed down the role for the Cubs in 2015 and ’16.

“That’s always your goal. Everybody wants to play every day,” Happ said. “So your goal is to solidify yourself in any spot you can and help the team any way you can. If I can help the team the best way by leading off, that’s what I’ll do.”

It would be the second consecutive season the Cubs open with a leadoff man who has fewer than 500 career plate appearances, after the failed Kyle Schwarber experiment last year.

Schwarber wound up in the minors for two weeks, and the Cubs wound up using 11 leadoff men.

Could Happ be a different kind of answer?

“It definitely appears as though he can handle it,” said Maddon, who mentioned adjustments and growth in Happ — especially from the right side — since a rookie season in which he hit 24 home runs but also struck out 129 times in 364 at-bats.

“He’s gotten better on both sides approach-wise,” Maddon said. “I think he’s shorter to the ball. He’s doing a lot of things really well. Plus, his confidence is soaring, my God.”

Happ, who went 1-for-4 with an infield single against the Rangers on Wednesday, is 14-for-42 (.333) with five walks (.417 on-base percentage) and nine extra-base hits (.810 slugging) this spring.

Another big key for Happ has been the way he has stepped up his fielding in center field. He added a nice catch in the left-field gap Wednesday after a pair of long running catches to the other gap Monday.

“Being able to play multiple positions is good, but anybody that can nail down one spot kind of gets penciled in every day in that spot,” said Happ, the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft. “So for me being able to play a really good center field was definitely a goal of mine coming in, and I feel really good about what I’ve done out there.”

Follow me on Twitter @GDubCub.


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