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Does an Ian Happ extension make sense for the Cubs?

(Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images)
(Photo by Scott Kane/Getty Images) /
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2021, like it was for the Chicago Cubs as a whole, was a year to forget for Ian Happ. After encouraging signs in his brief 2019 and 2020 seasons, a Happ breakout might’ve been in the cards, but instead, Happ had his worst statistical season offensively and became the subject of trade rumors among the fanbase.

There wasn’t much hype surrounding Happ entering the season, but through one month, the results have been staggering. The switch-hitting outfielder currently is striking out the least he ever has in his career by a long shot. Happ’s strikeout rate heading into Wednesday night sat at 18.8 percent, with his previous career low sitting at 25 percent. This is a staggering improvement for Happ, whose main weakness had always been strikeouts.

Happ has always been good at getting on base, but his current walk rate of 16.5 percent would be the best of his career. All of this adds up to a slash line .304/.424/.435, good for a 153 wRC+. With all of these major improvements, instead of a trade, should the Cubs consider an extension for Happ?

Cubs: An extension for Ian Happ would make sense for all parties

Many may hesitate to extend Happ, for fear of his start being more of a fluke, than a reality, but there are some indications that this iteration of Happ is closer to the norm. For one, his whiff rate is in the 50th percentile, 40 percentile groups higher than his career-best. Happ also has an outstanding chase rate, ranking in the 86th percentile according to Baseball Savant.

All of this would add up to explain Happ’s reduced strikeout rate, and should he continue to keep his whiffs down, there’s no reason to believe he can in turn keep the strikeouts down. The former first-rounder has also been much better at making contact which is something he struggled with in the past.

Another major improvement in Happ’s game has been his defense. Happ has always gotten a good jump to the ball, but his defense this season is far and away the best it’s ever been. Savant places him in the 64th percentile for Outs Above Average, a category in which Happ was in just the seventh percentile last year.

Happ’s offensive resurgence and defensive progress suddenly make him a valuable commodity, and it may be wise for Jed Hoyer and the Cubs to lock him up now. With such a surge of cheaper level extensions being signed around the league, it’s not impossible to see Chicago locking up Happ long-term at an affordable rate.

The only red flag you may be able to point to is that Happ’s power numbers are down. While this is true, there are a couple of reasons to not be overly concerned about this. One reason is that the balls have absolutely been deadened, and power numbers across the league are down.

Another is that Happ will see some regression to the mean, both negative and positive. We shouldn’t expect him to keep up a 150 wRC+ pace all season, and a slight strikeout uptick, as well as a power uptick, should be unavoidable.

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The Chicago outfielder will inevitably come down from his 150 wRC+ to a more grounded level, but if he hovers in the 120-130 wRC+ range, and pairs it with his improved defense, Happ is a valuable player that is absolutely worthy of being extended as a cornerstone of the Cubs rebuild/retool.

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