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David Bote’s Emergence, Ian Happ’s Role, and The Cubs’ Deadline Options

One of the biggest surprises of the Cubs’ 2018 first half was the emergence of utility infielder David Bote. Bote, an 18th round pick in the 2012 draft was never a serious prospect or a ballplayer with significant major league expectations. But, after a red-hot start to his big league career, Bote is raising eyebrows and his breakout could wind up holding the key to the Cubs’ 2018 trade deadline strategy in a couple different ways.

The first way Bote could come into focus within the next few days is clear: he could be dealt. While he wouldn’t be a centerpiece in a deal for a hugely significant arm, Bote’s numbers (albeit in a small sample size at the big league level) and positional flexibility must be intriguing to various potential trade partners. In 53 plate appearances, he’s batting .310/.415/.452, which is good for a 132 wRC+. He’s also demonstrated great versatility and very nice defense: he’s clocked in time at third, second, and first in the bigs—as well as short and left field in Iowa. He’s played additional time in the outfield throughout his years in the minors too. Down in Des Moines, he’s continued his great 2018 and batted to a line of .260/.337/.484 so far with 12 home runs in 246 plate appearances. If you’re a team like the Blue Jays or Rangers, looking to cash in on an arm heading toward free agency, David Bote would be a very nice addition to the system.

That’s the most likely reason that Bote winds up being critical to the Cubs’ deadline plans. But, there’s another possibility—one that has less to do with him directly and more to do with what his scorching start allows the team to consider: trading Ian Happ.

I’m not suggesting that a Happ trade is necessary, and I’m not even suggesting that a Happ trade would be wise. But Happ, who has turned around a sluggish start into a great sophomore campaign with a .256/.377/.462 line, good for a 123 wRC+ and a 2.1 WARP, could be—in very specific deals—more expendable than previously thought.

When Happ was initially drafted in 2015, he drew immediate comparisons to Ben Zobrist: a high on base, utility player with some power. Happ has done nothing but meet and exceed those comparisons since getting to the majors last year with his very solid rookie campaign (.253/.328/.514) and even better sophomore season.

Yet, with Jason Heyward’s reemergence into the near $200 million-dollar man the front office expected him to be, Happ’s role on the club is a little less clear. Though he plays regularly, he’s only started in 60 of the Cubs’ 98 games as of Sunday. A second baseman throughout his time in the minors, he’s hardly seen time in the infield this season, partially due to Javier Baez’ stronghold over second and partially due to the ascent of Bote, who filled in nicely at third during the first half. Brought up through the system to be a multi-positional pocketknife, Happ’s versatility isn’t fully being utilized this year.

Instead, Happ’s primary duty comes when he shares outfield time with Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr. and Heyward. Last season, the Happ/Almora center field platoon made sense. Almora beat up on left-handed pitching but struggled against righties. Happ beat up on righties but was weaker against lefties. Easy.

But Almora’s taken another step forward this year and is hitting both lefties and righties quite well (111 wRC+ against righties, 117 wRC+ against lefties). So far this season, Happ has mashed against righties: 268/.406/.500 with a 139 wRC+. Against lefties, though, he’s struggled: .230/.305/.378 and a 40.2 percent strikeout rate, good for an 86 wRC+. Meanwhile, Schwarber, who shares time with Happ in left, produces splits similar to Happ’s (135 wRC+ against righties, 88 wRC+ against lefties). Point is, Happ isn’t providing a huge platoon advantage by shielding Almora against righties and isn’t providing a boost over Schwarber against lefties. He’s just a really good fourth outfielder who would be starting daily on any other squad. Positionally, a theoretical Happ departure would formally push Almora and Schwarber into official full-time duty and make Jason Heyward the lone center field backup.

But though he may not provide specific a platoon advantage in comparison to his fellow outfielders, he, of course, is still a very valuable member of the team. It’s not every day that a slugging utility player with huge on-base numbers finds his way into the ballpark. Trading away an experienced, contributing, and talented player like Happ in the middle of a pennant run would be an extreme decision and one that certainly could prove detrimental.

Yet, all things considered, it’s still fair to wonder if he’s a luxury the Cubs could afford this sort of deal in very specific circumstances. Though Happ may not be an exciting enough centerpiece for a Jacob deGrom deal with the New York Mets, it is probably worth finding out. If the Mets are interested, that deal would beg serious consideration. Even if Happ may not be enough to pry deGrom out of Queens, it’s still probably worth checking in with the Rays or the Tigers to see if those teams would want to chat about Chris Archer or Michael Fulmer, respectively, both of whom are having relative down seasons but come with immense upside and are controllable for years to come.

There is no doubt that trading away Ian Happ would not be an easy or ideal choice. He has done nothing but exceed expectations since being drafted and has emerged into a very valuable player on a very competitive team. But it’s on the table due to David Bote’s emergence. Bote clearly does not come with the same extensive track record or first-round pick pedigree as Happ, but he has still demonstrated that he can serve in a similar role. If it’s not a mirage, Bote’s ability to keep solid on-base skills, a bit of pop and defensive versatility could earn him the role of “Ian Happ-Lite.”

David Bote’s 2018 breakout has put him solidly on radars across the big leagues. If Bote is to impact the Cubs’ deadline plans, it’s most likely to be as a trade chip himself. Simultaneously, Bote’s emergence could also make fellow utilityman Ian Happ more expendable. If the Cubs can maneuver into a position in which they move Happ, keep Happ-Lite, and acquire a controllable starting pitcher who can impact the 2018 stretch run and playoff runs to come, the team should very seriously consider a deal.

Lead photo courtesy Matt Marton—USA Today Sports

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