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Cubs Happ Baseball (copy)

A year ago, the Cubs' Ian Happ, above, was a top prospect looking for a spot on the crowded roster of the Chicago Cubs. Now he is looking to build off an impressive rookie season. 


MESA, Ariz. — When Cubs manager Joe Maddon arrived for spring training, framing art posed a more obvious challenge than filling holes in the lineup.

Maddon appeared to enjoy fitting Salvador Dali and Michelangelo on a wall as much as finding the Cubs' eighth reliever and backup catcher.

Not much roster suspense surrounds a Cubs team that looked like a World Series contender on day one, but determining who deserves to hit in the leadoff spot represented one of the few unanswered questions.

And in one week Ian Happ answered that emphatically.

Happ, the most overlooked Cubs prospect, came to camp ready to prove his promising rookie season was no fluke. In his first six spring games, Happ hit .471 with four home runs, drove in seven runs and had a sizzling on-base percentage of .500. It was the unassuming 23-year-old's way of saying, "Remember me?"

Making big decisions off small sample sizes in spring training carries risk. Gordon Beckham, the former White Sox infielder who signed a minor-league contract with the Mariners, for example, led the Cactus League in hitting after seven games with a .588 average, but nobody expects his run to last.

March is when so many Four-A players thrive. So, yes, Happ's hot streak could be misleading, but his diverse skill set and history suggest he could turn a weakness into a strength.

On a team full of square pegs when it comes to leadoff hitters, Happ comes the closest to fitting into a round hole.

Besides, no better options exist. Please don't reintroduce the idea of Kyle Schwarber, whom Maddon forced into the role for a failed 36-game experiment to begin 2017. That became Exhibit A of Maddon outsmarting himself. Schwarber managed a meager .190 average and .312 on-base percentage leading off.

He salvaged his season after a stint with Triple-A Iowa when Maddon moved him down in the order _ where the slugger belongs, even with a leaner physique.

But leadoff? No way. The Cubs need to improve production from a spot that combined for a mere .246 average and .324 on-base percentage in 2017. On the first day of workouts, Maddon announced, "We're going to try to audition the dudes we think might be in that spot." Those dudes included Happ, Albert Almora Jr., Ben Zobrist and Jason Heyward.

Almora possesses the goldest of gloves in center field but has yet to earn Maddon's trust enough at the plate to envision him leading off 135 games. His bat also packs less punch than Happ's. Zobrist hits for the highest average and has the keenest eye at the plate, but concerns over age and injury make any projections about his season come with an asterisk. Heyward offers every tool in the box as a potential leadoff hitter, but do the Cubs really want to give him one more thing to worry about at the plate?

Happ possesses the best combination of speed and power, as well as the versatility to play all three outfield positions and second base. He can play right or left to make room for Almora's defense and always fill in at second. He is Zobrist 2.0 but younger and more dangerous.

The Cubs never gave Happ a chance to prove himself batting first last year, leading him off only eight games. He showed some pop with three home runs and six RBIs with an on-base percentage of .333. Even Anthony Rizzo led off more, anointing himself "statistically the greatest leadoff hitter of all time" after a sizzling 14-game stint in June.

Imagine what Happ, a forgotten man last postseason, could do with 500 at-bats. In 364 at-bats as a rookie, he quietly blasted 24 home runs and drove in 68 RBIs, posting a slash line of .253/.328/.514.

Ideally, Happ's on-base percentage would be .350 or higher leading off and his walk rate would increase from 9.4 percent. His college numbers at Cincinnati, where Happ ranked third in career on-base percentage at .463, provide more evidence to believe in the ninth pick of the 2015 draft. The Cubs considered Happ the best all-around hitter coming out that year.

Remember that Happ had only 116 plate appearances at Iowa before the Cubs promoted him last season, so he figures to develop better plate discipline even as the league adjusts to his early success. He runs fast enough to become a threat on the bases.

"Everyday lineup" is a misnomer in Maddon's baseball glossary, what with his constant tinkering. But committing to Happ now could go a long way toward boosting his confidence and building momentum.

So much pomp and circumstance annually accompanies the naming of a team's Opening-Day starter, but Maddon selecting a leadoff hitter potentially carries more impact _ and could frame the Cubs' season for success.


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