Chicago Cubs: Ian Happ’s contributions and role moving forward

(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images) /

For the Chicago Cubs, young prospects turned viable major league talents have propelled the team to victory the past few years. Ian Happ is the most recent addition to that game plan.

Lost in the mix of MVP third baseman Kris Bryant and team veteran Anthony Rizzo is the quietly effective rookie, Ian Happ. When Theo Epstein took over as president of the Chicago Cubs in 2012, his plan was clear: acquire and develop young position players who can hit.

In a league that depends so heavily on quality starting pitching, this route was a bit of a departure from what other presidents and GMs were doing. But as we’ve seen, this strategy has worked to perfection, and continues to do so. That is, if you consider winning the World Series a success.

Ian Happ is the latest successful implementation of Epstein’s plan.

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Road to The Show

Happ made his major league debut on May 13 against the St. Louis Cardinals. At the time he was called up, the then 22-year-old was the No. 2 prospect in the Chicago Cubs’ minor league system. Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Happ played his college ball at the University of Cincinnati. He would then go on to be drafted by the Cubs in the first round (ninth overall) of the 2015 MLB Amateur Draft.

Primarily a second baseman, Happ got significant playing time at each outfield position while going through the Cubs’ minor league system. This could ultimately lead to Happ eventually taking over Ben Zobrist‘s role as the team utility-man. Being able to play multiple positions, and play them well, is a huge commodity for those trying to become mainstays in Major League Baseball. Happ’s versatility is not merely confined to his defense, though. He joins teammates Ben Zobrist and Victor Caratini as one of the few switch-hitters on the Cubs’ roster.

In his final collegiate season in 2015, Happ slashed .369/.492/.672 with 14 home runs and 44 RBI with the Cincinnati Bearcats. It’s not difficult to see why the Cubs used their first round pick on him. Happ then proceeded to breeze through the Cubs’ minor league system, hitting .298/.362/.615 with nine home runs during his time with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs.

Future with the Cubs?

Do we even know what Ian Happ’s voice sounds like? He doesn’t have the sparkplug aura of, say, Javier Baez or Willson Contreras. But his presence on the team has nonetheless been a vital part of the Cubs’ success this year.

Happ’s rookie season has had its ups and downs, but he’s gradually developed some consistency across 2017. By most measures, he’s already outperforming Addison Russell at the plate. To this point, Happ is slashing .253/.326/.503 with 22 home runs and 63 RBI. Those are a some solid numbers, especially for a rookie. There’s some real power in that bat. And the ability to hit from both sides of the plate makes him all the more valuable. Happ has hit better from the left side, but the drop-off isn’t steep enough to make him a definite lineup scratch against left-handed pitchers.

Here’s the problem, though. The Cubs are pretty deep at every position Happ plays. He’s a natural second baseman, and although you could argue his bat is up to par with Javier Baez, there’s no denying Baez is better defensively. As it stands, Baez looks like the long term second baseman in Chicago.

Happ can play play center field as well. In fact, he might be the fastest player on the team. But Albert Almora Jr. presents another roadblock for him. Almora is the superior defender in center field. And his bat has really come along this season, leading many to believe he’ll have the job full time next season.

How does Happ fit in?

Unfortunately, it’s not clear how things will shake out for Ian Happ. At the moment, he doesn’t appear to be guaranteed a spot as a regular in 2018. The Cubs have a problem most teams around the league wish they could have as well. They’re too deep with young talent.

When that’s the case, tough decisions have to be made. Will Happ be traded? It’s certainly possible. The rotation will be a bit of a question mark after this season. Perhaps Happ is used to bolster the starting pitching. Alternatively, maybe it won’t be Happ. It could be that the Cubs deal Addison Russell instead. Or maybe they throw us a curveball and deal Baez.

Next: Who will play outfield in the postseason?

There’s also a possibility that Happ just won’t have a normal spot. Ben Zobrist will be entering his age-37 season next year. He’s not going to be around forever. Happ might assume his role as the utility man, playing wherever he’s needed on a given day. Time will tell us how Ian Happ’s role unfolds in Chicago.