Ian Happ’s hot spring start demands attention, playing time

It takes a particularly impressive stretch for an established major league player to drum up any added interest during spring training. This year, that’s exactly what Ian Happ is doing for the Chicago Cubs.

Happ is on a torrid pace this spring, hitting .471 (in six games) with four home runs, seven RBIs and 22 total bases through March 6.

It’s easy to counter these standout numbers by saying spring training pitching isn’t the top-notch regular season pitching he’ll see this year. While that’s generally true, you can’t ignore this sort of production from a young player.

If this level of play continues, it would be hard to keep Happ out of the everyday lineup once the regular season rolls around. The problem is that there may not be anywhere to put him.

In his rookie season, Happ slashed .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs. Those are good numbers for any rookie. But when you consider how versatile he was as well, with time spent at five different positions, his value shot up even higher.

That positional flexibility is a vital part of Joe Maddon’s managerial scheme and helps to create seemingly countless lineup combinations. However, what happens when a player who looked that good as a rookie and is tearing up the Cactus League before his second season could still be legitimately blocked at any of his possible positions?

The Cubs’ outfield is set, with Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Jason Heyward projected to line up left to right on a regular basis.

Schwarber’s power is lethal and he’s due for a resurgent year, Almora has a great glove and can hold his own offensively, and Heyward is an elite defender who the coaching staff has committed a lot of time to in terms of his work at the plate.

Happ doesn’t fit in with that arrangement as an everyday player.

He played mostly second base while in the infield last year, but that spot is likely going to Javier Baez, who proved he could hold his own as an everyday player last year when he stepped in for Addison Russell at shortstop. He’s a boom-or-bust player, but his potency at the plate and in the field is hard to pull from the lineup.

And Happ saw a few innings at third base last year, but as long as there’s a former NL MVP at the hot corner you won’t see much of No. 8 at third.

To compound the issue, even more, Ben Zobrist hasn’t even been factored into the equation yet. Zobrist will be 37 in May, and while he wasn’t his old self last year (his 0.5 WAR was the lowest total of any season of his career in which he played a full year) it’s safe to say Maddon will try to fit him in the lineup frequently if he can, since he also can play numerous positions.

An overabundance of talent is an issue the Cubs have dealt with for several years now. And it’s a problem that any team would love to have.

This isn’t all to say that Happ will be the odd man out for the whole season, either, because he will get plenty of playing time. Guys like the three projected starting outfielders and Baez will not face certain pitchers throughout the year, so the switch-hitting Happ will get plenty of chances.

David Haugh of the Chicago Tribune wrote a column recently about Happ earning a shot to lead off for the Cubs this season. If he keeps up this sort of production and does so consistently, it would be a welcome return to the 2015-16 run of Dexter Fowler at the top of the order, when a sustained presence in the one spot was the norm instead of a fluke like it was last year.

Again, though, how do you fit Happ in as much as possible when there are some many other talented players who are just as deserving and already have established themselves, at least to some degree?

It won’t be easy to find an answer. For Happ, the most important thing is to stay as steady as possible in the field and to continue putting up head-turning numbers at the plate.

If he does that, Maddon will have no choice but to get him on the field every day.

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