In a move that came as a surprise to many, Ian Happ was optioned to Triple-A Iowa rather than breaking camp with the big club, ostensibly because the Cubs couldn’t give him regular at-bats. The time in Iowa would also allow him to work on his approach and reducing his strikeout rate, which climbed to 36.1% in 2018 from the 31.2% he posted in his rookie season of 2017.
In the meantime, Albert Almora Jr. has received a majority of the starts in center field for the Cubs, with 62 games started in 87 total games played. While he has great defensive skills and seems to have a web gem at least once a week, Almora’s history of inconsistency at the plate has spiraled into the worst first half of his career. Not exactly indicative of “production over talent.”
Below is a snapshot of Almora’s overall offensive production, along with relevant batted ball data.
|Year||1st Half Slash Line||2nd Half Slash Line||OPS+||wRC+||BABIP||GB%||O-Contact %||Z-Contact %|
As you can see, he was producing around league average during his first two seasons but has since declined to below-average with increased playing time. His groundball percentage has also increased every year. Almora has made more contact on pitches both inside and outside the zone this season, but his BABIP has gone down well below .300 as a result. While there is an inherent element of luck with regard to defensive plays and positioning, the reduced BABIP on increased contact, especially on pitches in the zone, leads to concern about his pitch selection.
Almora’s poor performance, in conjunction with Ben Zobrist‘s absence and Daniel Descalso‘s abysmal season, has exposed the Cubs’ lack of outfield and bench depth. The Carlos González experiment did not work out, which leaves the Cubs with a major decision to make as they look to regain the NL Central crown.
Even with his excellent defense, Almora needs to be hitting closer to league average to provide sufficient overall value. With a mere 0.2 fWAR so far, he is on track to finish well below the 1.1 he posted in 2018 and keeping Almora on the major-league roster will only serve to drag the Cubs’ offense down when it needs to get hot.
Assuming neither player is moved in a trade, the Cubs could give the offense a lift by demoting Almora and recalling Happ. The work Happ has been doing in Iowa seems to be finally paying off, as he is slashing .322/.429/.661 with five home runs and 11 RBI in July and it would be worthwhile for the Cubs to see if he can carry that production in Chicago. While he is not an optimal choice to start in center (-4 DRS over two seasons), Jason Heyward can continue to spend time there with Happ, Kyle Schwarber and Kris Bryant platooning the corners.
Even if Happ does not maintain his recent offensive production, his versatility and power from both sides of the plate would be an improvement over what Almora has offered to this point. And if Happ really has turned the corner, that improvement is guaranteed. While the Cubs may see fit to address some of their deficiencies via trade, swapping center fielders between Iowa and Chicago would be an easy way to boost the offense.