Cubs 2020 roster outlook: Ian Happ poised to claim starting center field job


Each day in March, NBC Sports Chicago is previewing one player from the Cubs’ expected 2020 Opening Day roster. Next up is center fielder Ian Happ.

2019 recap

The Cubs sent Happ to Triple-A Iowa out of the gate last season after his concerning 2018 strikeout totals bled into spring training. The 25-year-old wasn’t pleased with the move but he came back a more refined hitter.

Happ dropped his strikeout rate from 36.1 percent in 2018 to 25 percent. He hit the ball with more authority, slugging .564 with a .300 ISO — both up from .408 and .176 a season prior.

Happ’s on-base percentage dropped 20 points to .333. This largely is because his walk rate fell from 15.2 percent in 2018 to 9.6 percent. However, he also experienced some bad luck on balls in play (.286 BABIP — below league average).

All said, Happ was a far more productive hitter. His 127 wRC+ tied for fourth on the Cubs, albeit in a smaller sample size than those above him. He also received positive regards for his defense in center field.

Expectations for this season’s role

Happ is poised to claim the Cubs’ starting center field job. He and Albert Almora Jr. are competing for the role, and both started spring training off hot. However, Almora is 2-for-20 his last seven games, and Happ is hitting .481/.500/.815 with two home runs and 11 RBIs in 10 games.

Happ can play all around the diamond, so the Cubs can start him elsewhere on days Almora plays center.

2020 outlook

Will Happ’s spring totals carry over into the regular season? No, but his underlying numbers from 2019 say this could be the best season of his young career.

When his strikeout totals spiked in 2018, it wasn’t because Happ was chasing pitches out of the strike zone. Rather, he was missing pitches in the zone and making contact at a below average rate, as a result.

Happ was much better in those departments last season, posting career bests in swinging strike rate (14.7 percent), contact rate (71.7 percent) and zone contact rate (82.1 percent). Granted, those figures are a notch below league average, but it’s a step in the right direction.

We know Happ has good plate discipline and a powerful swing. Where he’s struggled is hitting his pitch. His continued progression in this area is key to his development into an everyday player.

The complete roster outlook series:

1. Cubs hoping Kris Bryant stabilizes leadoff spot in 2020
2. Kyle Hendricks is a steady force in the Cubs' rotation
3. Kyle Schwarber is primed for a breakout 2020 season
4. Tyler Chatwood has chance to rewrite the script in 2020
5. David Bote searching for more offensive consistency in 2020
6. One pitch could hold key to Jose Quintana's 2020 success
7. Albert Almora Jr. looking to rebound behind new swing, refreshed mental state
8. Cubs counting on bounce back season from Craig Kimbrel
9. Javier Báez is indispensable, and the best is yet to come
10. New pitch key to Rowan Wick staving off regression
11. New MLB rule gives Victor Caratini chance for bigger role
12. Daniel Descalso can only improve from last season

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