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Why the success of Cubs' lineup is personal to Joe Maddon

"His development is very important to us and to me personally," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said of Ian Happ, right. "I have to figure out a way to get this done." Erik S. Lesser/EPA

CHICAGO -- If you’re looking for that one moment when the Cubs decided they needed more from their offense, you won’t find it.

It was a culmination of many moments -- many frustrating ones -- over the past couple of years, during both the regular season and playoffs. The Cubs knew they could hit home runs, but they needed to generate runs in different ways.

“It was based on a lot of conversations over the course of the year,” general manager Jed Hoyer said Thursday. “We saw them, in some ways, developing exceptionally well, but we saw the place we could grow as an offense was to be able to hit situationally, to drive in runs with men on base. Be different offenses at different times depending on the situation. We morphed into a one-size-fits-all approach at times.”

Cubs manager Joe Maddon was behind the need for change as much as anyone. His belief is that driving in runs -- without hitting the ball out of the park -- comes from using the whole field, particularly the opposite field. And there has been no player he has backed more than Ian Happ. Despite Happ’s eye-popping 45 percent strikeout rate, Maddon won’t bury him on the bench or push for him to be sent to Triple-A Iowa.

“I need to get him out there,” Maddon said recently of Happ. “His development is very important to us and to me personally. I have to figure out a way to get this done. He’s working his butt off.”

It was a little out of character to hear Maddon take one player “personally,” but Happ represents the challenge the Cubs are facing. If they can cut down on Happ’s swing-and-misses, then perhaps everyone can improve in that area. Happ rewarded the faith of Maddon and the team -- to a certain extent -- when he homered from both sides of the plate in Monday’s blowout victory over the Miami Marlins. But he followed that up with a three-strikeout game on Wednesday.

“Ian has such a great makeup,” Hoyer said. “He’s such a likable kid. He’s so competitive. He cares so much and is intelligent. I think those things resonate with Joe. He sees the ability [Happ] has as a player. I just think they have a nice relationship. It’s based on all those attributes. The reason Joe believes in him is the same reason the whole organization does, but I do think he has taken a personal interest in him.”

One of those home runs by Happ on Monday went to the opposite field with Happ batting left-handed. That side of the plate has been an issue for him this season, but that at-bat is indicative of what the Cubs want from all their hitters. According to ESPN Stats & Information data, going into this weekend’s series against the White Sox, the Cubs rank sixth in the majors with 84 opposite-field hits. That’s up from 19th last season. Happ has only six opposite-field hits, including that home run Monday, but pulling the ball too much or striking out isn’t going to deter Maddon.

“I need to figure out a way to get Happ back on the horse in a positive way,” Maddon said. “He can be so important for us throughout the course of the year. He plays a variety of positions, is a switch-hitter, great power, great attitude, great member of the team. I have to figure it out.”

So there is progress, but the Cubs still languish near the bottom of the league in getting runners home from third with less than two out. They’re successful 44 percent of the time, five points below the league average. Everything about the Cubs at the plate screams inconsistency right now -- even their walks and home runs are down -- but no one wins the pennant in May.

“There are a lot of positives with our young hitters, but we felt there was another level to get to offensively as a group,” Hoyer said. “We’re hoping we get there.”

Bryant at leadoff?

While Maddon left the door slightly open for Kyle Schwarber to get spot starts as the Cubs' leadoff hitter, he hasn’t really considered slugger Kris Bryant there. Maybe he should. This isn’t 1985 and the Cubs don’t have Rickey Henderson -- or even Dexter Fowler -- on their team. Batting a slugger at leadoff is becoming the norm more and more.

“People that didn’t like it before, [that] was for the all the wrong reasons,” Maddon said of the idea. “They just figured you wanted someone short that ran fast because that’s what their daddy told them.”

Maddon is open to the move, but would he actually bat Bryant leadoff for an extended time?

A career .390 on-base percentage suggests that Bryant would be a good candidate, while his .377 OBP when leading off an inning seems like a fit, as well. Of course, we won't know how he’ll react until he’s actually doing it, but if anyone on the Cubs seems adaptable to a move atop the order, it would be Bryant.

Plus, Bryce Harper has been batting leadoff for the Washington Nationals. Why not Bryant?

“I can’t say never based on need and what’s going on at the time,” Maddon said. “I still like [Ben] Zobrist up there when he’s playing. I like Albert [Almora Jr.] against lefties also.”

People who call for continuity in the lineup usually mean at the leadoff spot. Using Bryant there would provide it against both lefties and righties.

Schwarber’s playing time

While fans have rallied around the cause of more playing time for Almora, should Schwarber get the same treatment? He is proving he’s past his problems of 2017 and is now contributing against lefties. He’s only 2-for-16 against left-handers, but he has walked four times, which keeps him viable even on tough hitting days.

Schwarber still could sit against tougher lefties, but now that he has shown improvement -- and perhaps that last year’s dismal first half was a fluke -- it’s time for the Cubs to find out if he’s the dynamic hitter they drafted or just a platoon player.

Schwarber saw thousands of curveballs in the offseason from a left-handed pitching machine. It’s time to let him see them in games. His .372 OBP demands it. Almora can provide better defense, but Schwarber’s ability to walk and hit could be too juicy to pass up. Maddon, however, doesn't seem inclined to hand an everyday job to any of his outfielders, whether it's Schwarber, Happ, Almora or anyone else.

“Nobody is benched,” Maddon said. “It’s a matter of moving the pieces around, because we have so many. It’s May. You know how big I am about August and September. I know it's early. I know their birth certificates say they’re fine. I get it. I get it. But, believe me, [fatigue] piles up.”