This season will serve as a proving ground for multiple Chicago Cubs players, but perhaps none more so than switch-hitting utility man Ian Happ.
Former first-round pick Ian Happ is likely to have the inside track on the starting job in center field, though it is also likely he will see some time at second base. In any case, the Cubs need to give Happ his at-bats and establish him as a core member of their future.
The 25-year-old seemed like the next rising star in the Cubs system when he burst onto the scene in 2017. Happ hit 24 homers and posted an .842 OPS in 413 plate appearances, immediately staking his claim to one of the outfield spots.
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Things were not quite the same in 2018. The Cubs were hoping Happ could jumpstart the lineup from the leadoff spot. That move quickly backfired, as Happ posted a measly .682 and struck out 25 times in 61 plate appearances from the top of the order.
He seemed to get things together after he moved down in the lineup, but his incredibly high strikeout rate led to him fighting for playing time with the likes of Albert Almora. To make matters worse, Happ hit .196 with a .653 OPS in the second half.
As a result, Chicago sent to Happ to Triple-A Iowa at the start of the 2019 season, where he would remain until late July. It quickly became clear the Cubs could have used him in their lineup much sooner. Happ hit 11 homers with a .927 OPS and 132 wRC+ over the last two months, giving the Cubs legitimate pop at the bottom of the order.
Although Happ’s walk rate fell (albeit with a limited sample size) this past year, his strikeout rate also fell off. Most importantly, however, the contact rate improved.
The Cubs need more production in their lineup now that Nicholas Castellanos will be suiting up against them as a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
Happ deserves to see more than the lion’s share of the at-bats in center field in addition to some time at second base. The Cubs have exhibited patience with respect to his development in recent years, but – especially considering how this offseason has gone – they need to let him off the leash and see what he can do with 450-plus at-bats.
There was once a time where Chicago’s outfield seemed too crowded, and that either Happ or Almora would be traded. Instead, the Cubs kept both and watched as their value has plummeted in recent years.
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Now, the organization has justify the decision to keep Happ on board rather than capitalize on his past value when they could have looked to acquire more pitching. That means Happ must play, and he must play through slumps and tough stretches.