- Associated Press - Thursday, March 1, 2018

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - A year ago, Ian Happ was just looking for a spot on the Chicago Cubs’ crowded roster. The touted prospect took balls in the outfield and soaked in the atmosphere of his first big league spring training camp.

This time around, it’s a much different situation. The 23-year-old Happ is working on an encore for his impressive rookie season.

“It was a very similar offseason for me as far as preparation, but it was a different mindset,” he said. “It was more of understanding of where I needed to get my body. It wasn’t guesswork. I knew where I needed to get my body coming into spring training. I had goals and I was able to achieve them.”

The 23-year-old Happ also looked good in spring training last year, but he began the season with Triple-A Iowa. After a solid start in the minors, Happ was promoted to Chicago in May and hit .253 with 24 homers and 68 RBIs in 115 games, helping the Cubs make it all the way to the NL Championship Series for the third straight year.

Doesn’t look like he is headed back to Iowa anytime soon.

A switch hitter who was selected by Chicago with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft, Happ started in center and hit leadoff Thursday for the fourth time this spring training. He connected for his third spring homer, a two-run drive in the third inning of a 2-2 tie against Colorado.

“You know the league is going to continue to adjust to you,” Happ said. “It happens throughout your first year and then it’s going to happen again this year, so you just have to continue to improve yourself, continue learning how to hit more pitches and learn the game.”

The matchup with the Rockies was supposed to be the spring training debut for right-hander Yu Darvish, who finalized a $126 million, six-year deal with the Cubs on Feb. 13. But he has been battling an illness and opted for a two-inning bullpen session and a little batting practice.

Darvish said he is OK and the move was just a precaution. The delay means he likely will pitch in his first game for Chicago on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Dodgers, his former team.

“He’s not horribly ill, but he’s had this thing with his stomach,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We’re concerned about dehydration. If he goes out there and pitches, sweats a little bit and pulls something, that’s not smart.”

Happ played second base most of the time while he was in the minors, but it looks as if he is ticketed for the outfield this summer. The Cubs have Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist at second, and Happ looks comfortable on the grass after making 82 appearances in the outfield last season, including 41 starts in center.

But his biggest value for Chicago might be at the plate.

The leadoff spot was a season-long problem for the Cubs last year after Dexter Fowler signed with St. Louis in free agency. The .246 batting average for the No. 1 hitter in Chicago’s lineup was good for 24th in the majors, and the .324 on-base percentage was ranked No. 18.

While Happ was just OK in 39 plate appearances in the leadoff slot in 2017, his switch-hitting ability and athleticism make him a natural choice when he is in the lineup. He also spent time at the top of the batting order during his college career at the University of Cincinnati.

“It’s something I’ve done for a long time,” Happ said. “I’m comfortable with it. I feel good about all the at-bats that I’ve had so far. I’ll hit wherever they ask me, but leadoff is definitely a comfortable role for me.”

Albert Almora Jr. and Kyle Schwarber also are in the mix for the leadoff spot this spring. Schwarber began last year as Chicago’s leadoff hitter, but was removed from the spot after he got off to a slow start.

Channeling his inner Rickey Henderson, widely regarded as the best leadoff hitter of all time, Happ said his philosophy on hitting first is “be confident.”

“The guys that are the best at it are the guys that are confident and the guys that understand that they don’t have to change their approach,” he said, “that you’re already a high on-base percentage guy and you’re going to continue to do that in that role.”


Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap


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