The biggest surprise in Chicago this year has surely been the play of Ian Happ. What was initially viewed as a temporary reward call-up quickly turned into an almost everyday role that has seen the Cubs depend on him for 105 games so far.
After the 2016 minor league season, I did not think that Happ was ready for the majors, let alone AAA. In his first full season as a pro, he devastated Carolina League pitching at high-A Myrtle Beach but struggled a bit at AA Tennessee. A horrid August showed that he was physically and mentally worn down.
When spring training began in 2017, Happ showed renewed vigor and looked like he belonged with the major league club on a daily basis. Had it been a different era, he probably would’ve broken camp with Chicago. Instead, he was sent back to Iowa.
Though it wasn’t nearly the same meteoric rise we saw with Kris Bryant a couple years ago, Happ definitely showed that he could hit for power during his brief minor league tenure. I first saw him live in Beloit, Wisconsin two months after he was drafted and came away a bit mystified at how good an athlete he was and how beautifully his hands moved through the hitting zone.
Now that he has a good body of work in the majors, I am still perplexed by how much he has changed things up in a relatively short period of time. It’s clear the Cubs love his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and to do so with power, along with the ability to play all three outfield positions and second base. He was even willing to take a few grounders at third a month ago just in case Bryant’s pinky was not going to heal quickly.
I just have to admit once more that I absolutely did not see this happening so soon. At the end of last year, I thought he might be ready by the middle of 2018 if all went right. Instead, he’s leap-frogged several other players and has been a big part of Joe Maddon’s “good problem” when it comes to finding room in the lineup on a daily basis.
It’s not as if Happ has destroyed the careers of other players on the team, but he has clearly jumped ahead of them on the depth chart and on the lineup card. Here is who Happ’s ascension has had a direct impact on
After the postseason last year, the Cubs let Dexter Fowler go, due at least in small part to the fact that Almora was MLB-ready. Yet Happ has spent a lot of time in center, particularly against right-handed pitchers, thus pushing the incumbent to the side. Over the last month, however, Almora has torn it up against right handed-pitching.
I don’t think the Cubs have given up on Almora, I just don’t know if they’re ready to rely on him full-time or as much as they have relied on Happ in a variety of situations. Though he still has a lot to learn defensively, Happ’s ability to switch-hit has to be a factor in Almora’s lack of playing time. The 22 home runs don’t hurt either.
Tommy La Stella
The fact La Stella found himself Iowa this year says more about Happ than it does about La Stella. I have always liked his bat, but he’s not the most athletic player and Happ’s athleticism and ability to bat from both sides of the plate pushed La Stella further down the Cubs bench. As a backup, La Stella has hardly gotten much playing time this year and the future doesn’t look much brighter.
Happ’s rise to prominence in May made it easier to send Schwarber down to Iowa a little over a month later. Had the Cubs not gotten that kind of power and production from Happ, they might have let Schwarber work it out in the majors. Joe Maddon seems to have relied more and more on Happ the past two months than he has on Schwarber. From pinch-hitting to playing late in games, Happ gets the first call.
Mark Zagunis, Bijan Rademacher
Both put up outstanding years at AAA Iowa, but neither got a sniff of the majors in the second half (even in September) due in large part to Happ’s performance. Going forward, I don’t even think there’s a fifth outfield spot open for a couple of years for either of them or for fellow outfield prospect Charcer Burks, who should be at Iowa in 2018.
I don’t know how long the Cubs are going to be able to stick with Zobrist now. He has two years left on his deal after this season and I can see him hanging around now more in a bench capacity as a result of Happ’s breakout season.
Happ’s emergence and its impact will be felt even more this offseason. If the Cubs make a deal to acquire more starting pitching, they will likely be doing so with players that are seen expendalbe because of Happ’s presence. Now, I’m not saying Almora or Schwarber will be traded this offseason. I’m saying that Happ’s rise has made the trading of other players more probable and easier to swallow.
I am looking forward to seeing what Happ can do in the postseason and I hope he can respond as well as the other players listed above him did in the past two runs. It has already been a pretty impressive rookie season, but making a name for himself with a big playoff performance would help to cement things.