PEORIA, Ariz. — With barely three weeks left in spring training to make decisions, center field looks like the most compelling Cubs storyline of March.
Whether it leads to anything in October remains to be seen, especially considering that Albert Almora Jr. is coming off the worst baseball experience of his life in 2019 and Ian Happ is banking on a carryover from a strong finish last year.
On one hand, this is where the Cubs are after back-to-back winters quieted by budget issues as they seek improvement from within, in this case a couple of guys who took steps back last year and spent time in the minors battling for a key position.
On the other hand, Almora (No. 6 pick in 2012) and Happ (No. 9 in 2015) are both first-round talents who each have the early-spring look of young players who have turned the corner, or at least found a sudden bolt of incentive after 2019 struggles.
“I just think the confidence and the good things I was doing last year carried over,” said Happ, who spent half the season in the minors before returning in July and producing an .841 OPS in August and 1.021 in September. “Last spring I was making a lot of adjustments and thinking a lot about mechanics and not as much about competing and seeing the ball so it was a lot different spring for me. I’m just feeling comfortable up there at the plate.”
The right-handed hitting Almora is the best defensive center fielder the Cubs have but still is trying to prove he can hit right-handers consistently enough to play every day. The versatile Happ is a switch hitter who has hit much better from the left side in his career, but with almost three times the number of career plate appearances on that side.
Manager David Ross, who plans to have Happ play almost exclusively in center this spring, said he’s impressed with Happ’s right-hand swing so far. “And he seems in a great place mentally,” Ross said. “I definitely see a difference [from a year ago].”
Happ isn’t shy about his goal of winning the everyday job. And even said he thinks Ross’ preference for a more settled lineup this year than in recent years might open the door a little more for that chance.
“But that’s out of my control,” he said of the decision process.
“Albert Almora’s also having a great spring, and his swing looks really good,” Ross said. “His swing path looks phenomenal.
“I think we do get caught up sometimes in the everyday role, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when we’ve got more than one good player at a position. The more good players, the better we’re going to be and the more depth [we’ll have].”