During the rebuilding years, an essential part of being a fan of the Chicago Cubs was falling in love with the current batch of prospects and following their progress through the minors with almost as much (or more) fervor as the big league team. While there isn’t quite the embarrassment of riches down on the farm these days, it is still fun and meaningful to follow Ian Happ’s path to Chicago because he should make his Major League debut in 2017.
Falling in love with Ian Happ, however, is asking to have your heart broken — there simply is nowhere for this young man to play.
The switch-hitting Happ has a lot of intangibles that prompt falling for him as a baseball player. Drafted ninth overall in the 2015 MLB Draft out of the University of Cincinnati, he wasn’t the best college bat in the draft (that honor belonged to Andrew Benintendi), but he swung a mean stick that caught the Cubs’ eye. In his final season as an amateur, Happ produced a .369/.492/.672 slash line with 14 home runs and an equal 49 strikeouts and walks over 56 games.
He hasn’t stopped hitting, either. In 2016, he progressed through the minors on the strength of his bat. Between High A Myrtle Beach and Double A Tennessee, he hit a combined .279/.365/.445 with an .810 OPS, 15 home runs, 16 bags swiped and 68 walks against 129 strikeouts.
Happ profiles on defense as a second baseman/outfielder type, which will inevitably (fair or not) draw Ben Zobrist comparisons. But, the difference for Happ is that he might not be good enough to stick at second base.
In the Cubs top-10 prospect list, Happ is definitely profiled as a bat-first, defense-second kind of player.
“He’s not the most athletic of second baseman. His range isn’t ideal and his footwork can be choppy. He’s a below-average runner so is limited to a corner—probably left—in the outfield.”
While Joe Maddon is the master at finding playing time for seemingly everyone, it’s hard to imagine him squeezing Happ into the lineup on a regular basis barring a significant injury.
So Happ’s best-case scenario is if he could be a “Ben Zobrist type” bouncing from second base to left and right field on a regular basis. But even in this scenario, it still would be tough to get playing time as second is going to be completely blocked by Javier Baez and the aforementioned Zobrist.
Zobrist ended the year as the Cubs’ third-best hitter with a 4.0 WARP, and Baez came in at eighth with 2.5. If Happ is a fringe-infielder, then there is an incredibly steep drop-off from him and a guy like Baez defensively. While Happ should have a better approach at the plate than Javy, he is outclassed by both of these guys overall and it wouldn’t make sense to see him get time at second consistently.
So let’s move to the outfield.
In right, Jason Heyward is going to be the everyday player. After a down season, the Cubs aren’t going to just bench him for any foreseeable period. Heyward needs to rediscover his bat, in order to do so, one of the things he needs is regular playing time. On top of that, his elite glove (as evidence below) warrants playing time even if he isn’t hitting. While he might get the occasional day off, it isn’t going to be often.
Jason Heyward didn't misplay one ball hit to him last year. He made every easy/routine plays (and almost all the tough ones) pic.twitter.com/ClhEdHvE1t
— Daren Willman (@darenw) January 6, 2017
In left field next season, Wrigley is getting a big green monster of its own as The Hulk looks to fully return from his devastating knee injury. Despite making a miraculous comeback to play in the World Series, the Cubs may want to ease Kyle Schwarber back. He has never played in a full season, so there could be some at bats available, but Happ still wouldn’t be the next man up in that instance.
If you’re trying to become the next Ben Zobrist, it doesn’t help that Ben Zobrist is on the team you play for. If Schwarber sits, the Cubs optimal lineup features Baez at second and Zobrist in left (or Baez at third and Bryant in left).
None of this is to demean Happ as a player or prospect. It’s just to acknowledge that his value to the Chicago Cubs is better off being used as trade currency either at the deadline this summer or during the next offseason. The team will have needs that arise as they look to repeat as World Series champs, and Happ may be the first man to go as he is closer to the majors than the more coveted Eloy Jimenez.
If the Cubs somehow find themselves with the perfect team for 2017, there is still a very strong need for young, cost-controlled pitchers for 2018 and beyond as Jake Arrieta and John Lackey are both soon-to-be free agents. Happ could be an integral part of the Cubs filling in their rotation for the years ahead.
On almost any other team, fans would be excited about the impact Ian Happ could make for their ball club in the 2017 season, but that just isn’t the case for the Cubs. It’s one of the consequences of being stacked with young, quality players at almost every position around the diamond.
If a guy does go down for the season, Happ should get a good look. Otherwise, he could be out the door before the dog days of summer even hit.