One of the biggest questions coming out of spring training is who will play center field for the Cubs and how will new manager David Ross approach that roster spot. Jason Heyward can play center but he’s a five-time gold glove winner in right, so moving some of the Cubs’ young talent to center potentially improves the defense. Today I wanted to take a closer look at some of the numbers behind the Cubs options.
Happ spent most of 2019 in Triple-A working on fixing some holes in his swing and a strikeout rate that ballooned to over 36 percent in 2018. When he was finally called up to the Cubs those fixes seemed to have worked. His strikeout percentage fell to 25 percent in 58 games and he showed impressive power at the plate with 11 home runs in less than a third of a season. He slashed .264/.333/.564 and put up a wRC+ of 127 while his BABIP of .286 indicated he was actually getting a bit unlucky at the plate.
He still profiles more as a platoon option. He’s substantially better as a left-handed batter facing righty pitching than as a right-handed batter facing lefty pitching as you can see below:
Happ’s Handedness Splits 2019
Below you can see Happ’s first home run after returning to the Cubs, which also happened to be the Cubs’ longest home run in 2019 [VIDEO].
From a fielding perspective Happ has 130 games in center and profiles as a solid defensive option there. According to Statcast’s outs above average (OAA) in 2019 he was slightly above average and made one more OAA than the expected centerfielder. He had zero errors in center field in 2019. I should caution that was an extremely small sample size.
All spring training stats deserve a massive small sample size and context caveat (players are often working on specific parts of their games, pitchers often aren’t throwing their most devastating out pitch while they work on pitches) but it is worth noting that Ian Happ has torn up the Cactus League. He’s slashing .478/.500/.826 in 23 AB so far this spring.
Albert Almora Jr.
Albert Almora Jr. is a better defensive option in center than Ian Happ. In 2018 he was worth 11 OAA in that position, although that number dropped to 3 in 2019. Statcast has him above average in his jump on plays and outs above average while he’s below average on the routes he takes to the ball.
However, the problem for Almora in 2019 wasn’t his defense, it was his offense, which was just...bad. Almora slashed .236/.271/.381 with a wRC+ of 64 in 2019. Admittedly, he had a lot more at bats than Happ, but one way to look at these numbers is that Almora was approximately half of the offensive threat Happ was in 2019. His spot in the order was basically a black hole for large parts of 2019.
As Al wrote last week, Almora changed his swing in the offseason and if his changes so far in the Cactus League are for real the Cubs have a potentially very different player for 2020. You can see one of his home runs below [VIDEO].
David Ross commented specifically on Almora’s work on his swing in this Sun Times piece, although it’s worth noting he played his cards close to his vest comparing Happ and Almora:
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].”
“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].”
While Almora isn’t putting on quite the show that Happ is at the plate, he’s having a nice spring with a .296/.345/.556 slash line in 27 AB.
Steven Souza Jr.
When Souza came up with the Rays they liked him so much they focused on him over Trea Turner and Wil Myers, as Sahadev Sharma of the Athletic reported over the weekend:
No one has ever denied Souza’s talent. There’s a reason the Rays focused on him in a three-team deal that saw Trea Turner go to Washington and Wil Myers head to San Diego in 2017. All three were considered top talents at the time, but the Rays preferred Souza’s skillset.
Now with a fully reconstructed knee he’s fighting for a spot on the Cubs roster. If Souza makes that roster I think it’s more likely he’ll get playing time at a corner outfield spot, but he has played CF in his career. His jump and sprint speed are lower than Happ or Almora according to Statcast. That was before he blew out his knee.
He’s had a nice spring slashing .300/.391/.400 in 20 AB. I’d look at him more as an extra outfield bat with high upside than a serious contender for the starting role right now.
One player who’s caught my eye this spring is Ian Miller, who is currently leading the Cactus League in steals with eight stolen bags in 15 games. Miller is a 28-year-old center fielder who saw his first major league at-bats in 12 games with the Twins in 2019. He stole a lot of bases in the minor leagues but has yet to notch his first MLB stolen base, because, well, you have to get on first to steal second and a .176/.176/.235 slash line makes that really hard.
Statcast doesn’t have enough data to project his defense in CF but his sprint speed projects as above average. Miller is also making the most of his opportunity with the Cubs this spring with an impressive .375/.459/.469 slash line across 32 at-bats this spring.
Reading the tea leaves I’d imagine Ian Happ has the centerfield job on opening day and against most right-handed pitchers with Albert Almora Jr. waiting in the wings. Both Souza and Miller look like potential bench/backup options to me at this point, although it will be interesting to see how the Cubs approach center field, particularly with an extra roster spot in 2020.