Year in Review:
After lighting up the spring, it took barely more than a month into the 2017 regular season before the Cubs’ latest positional prodigy made his appearance at Wrigley Field. Ian Happ (the club’s no. 2 prospect at the time) was called up in mid-May due to an influx of injuries at the time, and never found his way back down. While he wasn’t immune to some very glaring and obvious rookie struggles, he did a lot that led to him logging over 400 major league plate appearances before the regular season came to an end.
Perhaps the most noticeable of the shortcomings that Happ demonstrated in 2017 was the strikeout rate that he posted, which eclipsed 31 percent. Happ’s K% was the 11th-highest among 216 position players that had at least 400 PAs this season. His whiff rate, at 16.1 percent, was the eighth-highest among that same group. Approach was something of an issue for him throughout the season, which is to be expected for a rookie making his first appearance at the big league level, at least to some extent. There were also some struggles on the defensive side, with second base and the corner outfield spots all ending up on the negative side of both FRAA and UZR for Happ. Even without the metrics, the eye test really showed you all you needed in that regard. The positive thing here is that both of these are aspects of his game that could improve with more time at the big league level and innings at various positions in the field. As two of the more glaring issues in his game, they’re also a couple of aspects in which we should see the most improvement moving forward.
It’s also probably important to note that much of what Happ did well was able to compensate for some of the shortcomings. For all of the swinging and missing, Happ still managed to walk at a rate of almost 10 percent. If he can continue to develop that approach, he’ll become even more of a threat at the plate. He’s already an established one, though, due to the power bat that he brings. Happ posted a .261 ISO and a hard hit rate of almost 33 percent. There’s a lot to be said about a player who can hit the ball with that sort of authority, even with drawbacks in the whiff department. Of course, the Cubs would likely prefer a bit more of a balance, as 19 of his 24 homers came from the right side, and his ISO right-handed was 86 points lower, at .200 for the year. But factor in his versatility—he appeared at five different positions in 2017—and the speed and upside on the bases (eight steals), and the Cubs have a rather unique entity on their hands. He does a lot of things well and can be deployed in a number of different ways, something that was showcased on a level we likely didn’t expect in 2017. There is a lot to be excited about.
Like some of the Cubs’ other young position players, there’s an element of uncertainty as far as Happ’s future on the North Side is concerned. Perhaps that’s due to lack of position more than anything. Should the Cubs move young talent for impact pitching, Happ actually figures to be the first to go, even more than Kyle Schwarber.
Should the team choose to keep him, though, Happ represents an extremely interesting quantity. There’s a lot of power in that bat, he’s just a player in need of more contact, fewer whiffs, and more consistency in the on-base side of things. He’s versatile and has underrated speed on the bases. However, would he actually start on this Cubs team in the near future? It’d depend on who they moved in other potential deals, but that seems unlikely (unless it’s Schwarber and Happ locks down some time in left field). There isn’t anything wrong with keeping him, because of everything that he brings. But finding playing time might be hard.
The Cubs have Javier Baez and Ben Zobrist at second base. Even with each bouncing to other positions depending on injuries, days off, etc., it’s difficult to find consistent playing time for Happ there. Jason Heyward’s situation in right field is more ambiguous than it has been in the last two years, but it’s hard to see Happ breaking through there. Same goes for left field, except in the unlikely event that the Cubs were to move Schwarber. Albert Almora is a hurdle for Happ in center, as well, unless they either moved Almora or handed Happ a starting-type gig there. There just doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of space for Happ to really break through with copious amounts of playing time in order to continue that development. As such, a trade seems a likely—and perhaps even the most logical—scenario for Ian Happ and the Cubs at this point. Of course, it wouldn’t be surprising to see him in spring camp, but if someone does find their way off of this current roster as a piece for pitching, it seems more likely to be Happ than anyone else.
Lead photo courtesy Jim Young—USA Today Sports