Ross has no doubt who'll lead off for Cubs

March 2nd, 2021

PEORIA, Ariz. -- When Cubs manager David Ross assembled his first lineup of the spring on Monday, he listed Anthony Rizzo in the first slot. That is the same Rizzo who once famously and humorously proclaimed himself the greatest leadoff hitter of all time.

No, there is no controversy atop Chicago's order.

There is a risk in reading too much into Spring Training lineups, especially when games first begin and veterans are gradually worked into the mix. The Cubs' Cactus League opener was a day off for the switch-hitting , who earned the leadoff job last season and will remain there come Opening Day.

"Ian gets the opportunity to continue that role," Ross said before his team's 1-0 win over the Padres. "That was a guy that had a phenomenal year for the abbreviated season. He continues to grow and find out his strengths and weaknesses. I can see him continuing to get better."

At the outset of Spring Training a year ago, Ross was quick to declare Kris Bryant his pick for the leadoff role as one of his first orders of business. The manager liked the idea of Bryant's blend of power, on-base ability and baserunning atop the order, and the star third baseman was on board with the experiment.

That decision was before the COVID-19 pandemic halted the sport, leading to a disjointed year with an abbreviated season. And during that 60-game sprint, Bryant was never at full strength. An assortment of injury setbacks impacted his performance and time on the field, creating an opportunity for Happ.

Happ was in the ninth spot on Opening Day on July 24 last season and launched a home run in a win over the Brewers. With such an emphasis on each win, Ross needed to play the hot hand. By Aug. 18, Happ was installed as the No. 1 hitter, and he responded with a homer, two hits and two walks in his first game.

"[One thing] I really appreciate about Rossy is he'll run you out there and keep it going," Happ said. "That was just a little bit different than in the past when I hit leadoff, and I think that's what kind of led to the consistent success from last year."

Happ has said a few times that he was happy to take on "the burden" of leading off from some of the Cubs' other hitters. To that end, Chicago has had a kind of revolving door -- both in terms of personnel and production -- in the table-setting role in recent years.

Consider that from 2017-19, the Cubs cycled through 17 players (in terms of starts) in the leadoff spot. That came after Dexter Fowler was a lineup igniter atop the order during Chicago's drive to World Series glory in '16. Since Fowler's exit, the North Siders have been on a quest for consistency in that job.

Here is a look at the leadoff production for the Cubs in the past five years:

2016: .267/.381/.434, 123 wRC+
2017: .246/.324/.422, 94 wRC+
2018: .302/.366/.454. 121 wRC+
2019: .212/.294/.383, 77 wRC+
2020: .211/.307/.418, 96 wRC+

The numbers from last year are slightly misleading, given that Bryant turned in a .177/.271/.323 slash line in his 16 starts as the leadoff man. Happ started 37 games in that role and hit .239/.333/.486 with a 119 wRC+. In 275 career plate appearances as a leadoff hitter, Happ has logged an .809 OPS with 15 homers.

Overall last season, Happ hit .258 with 12 homers, 28 RBIs and an .866 OPS in 57 games, but the last few weeks took a toll on his overall showing.

Happ was struck in the eye by a fluke foul ball on Sept. 3 in Pittsburgh, missed a day and then belted two homers in his return on Sept. 5 in the opener of a doubleheader against the Cardinals. Including Game 2 that day, the center fielder then hit .153/.247/.181 in 81 PAs in the remainder of the regular season.

Happ said the eye issue was more of a mental setback than a physical one.

"It was a tough three-week stretch to end the year, for sure," he said. "The eye was something that was a challenge, and more than anything, a mental challenge. Because when something like that happens, especially something that really is paramount to your game, the doubt can creep in pretty easily if things start to go sideways."

Between the season and playoffs, Happ said he was able to use the down time to dig into what was ailing him. What he found had more to do with the timing of his swing than anything else.

"I was able to see that there were some issues with being on time," Happ explained. "I was able to fix that heading into our couple playoff games there. And so I really felt good about making those adjustments. And the goal of this year will be to make them quicker, and to make them quicker mentally."

As the leadoff man, that will be imperative, too.

With Happ being a switch-hitter, Ross has some flexibility with how he can proceed with the lineup from there. Whether Ross puts the right-handed Bryant second or the lefty bat of Rizzo in that spot, the manager will have different ways he could alternate righties and lefties for balance.

"We're going to put [Happ] at the top of the lineup to get on base in front of some horses," Ross said. "As long as everybody stays healthy, we'll be working from him backward."