Chicago Cubs: Ian Happ looked ready to put it all together late last year

Ian Happ / Chicago Cubs (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Ian Happ / Chicago Cubs (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images) /

Last season was hardly the year Chicago Cubs outfielder Ian Happ envisioned for himself but after a strong finish, he’s heading into 2020 with momentum.

It’s safe to say few folks saw Ian Happ opening the 2019 campaign at Triple-A Iowa, but that’s exactly what happened. After a dreadful stretch to close out the 2018 (he hit .196 in the second half), the Chicago Cubs were hoping to see improvement heading into camp. Instead, things went in a very different direction.

Happ spent the first half of the year in Des Moines, re-tooling his swing and working to show the Cubs weren’t wrong when they selected him in the first round of the 2015 MLB Draft. The road back wasn’t smooth – or quick. He struggled for a good chunk of time at Triple-A before everything finally started to click in July and he showed significant signs of progress.

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Once he showed it wasn’t a blip on the radar, but legitimate, sustainable success, Theo Epstein recalled the switch-hitting Happ from Iowa. Given fellow outfielder Albert Almora‘s woeful offensive performance in recent years, any production with the bat would bode well – and that’s exactly what Chicago received as the 2019 season wound down.

Over the season’s final month, Happ slashed .311/.348/.672 in 66 plate appearances – a major improvement over what he’d done prior. Now, with the center field job seemingly there for the taking, it’s make-or-break time for the 25-year-old outfielder.

After rejoining the big league club last year, Happ cut his strikeout rate rather drastically – from an unsightly 36.1 percent in 2018 down to an even 25 percent last year. Now, there’s still plenty of room for improvement, but that’s not a minor improvement by any stretch – it’s one that has the potential to open doors for Happ in 2020 and beyond.

Looking at the Cubs outfield in a normal year, there’s not a lot of moving parts. Five-time Gold Glover Jason Heyward is under team control through 2023 – and looks likely to get the bulk of playing time in right field. Slugger Kyle Schwarber is coming off a breakout 2019 campaign where he turned in a monster second half, so expect to see him in left field for the foreseeable future.

That would leave Happ center field – where he’d likely battle with Almora once again. But this is anything but a regular year. There are strong indications that if baseball returns in 2020, the National League will feature a designated hitter for the first time. Furthermore, with Joe Maddon no longer managing Chicago, it seems far less likely you’ll see Heyward against southpaws, against whom he’s struggled for virtually his entire career.

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What does this mean for Happ? Opportunities – which is all he can really ask for given his inconsistent showing to-date. There’s no questioning his potential: he has a real shot to leave a lasting impact on the franchise. But it’s time for him to step up – the clock is ticking.