Ian Happ: Trade Chip or Building Block?

Let’s dispense with convention and start with the conclusion, which is that I don’t know the answer to the titular question. Or, to put it more accurately, I don’t know how the Cubs will answer it since that’s really all that matters. Either possibility is equally likely and I think the only way to view it at this point is that Ian Happ is both a trade chip and a building block.

In examining the Cubs’ offseason outlook earlier this month, I’d put forth the idea that Happ was most likely to be traded and I still feel that way. Because I pre-chewed my thoughts in that highly clickable piece, I’ll spare you as much mental mastication as possible and get into the meat of the matter. Before I do that, it should be noted that Sahadev Sharma’s piece on this same topic (subscription required/recommended) is what spurred further examination.

Sharma discusses Happ’s propensity to whiff and his lack of a true position, both of which were largely mitigated by power, athleticism, and whiffs. As we saw throughout the season, Happ was able to overcome his deficiencies with hard work and general baseball rattiness, fashioning himself into an indispensable utility player for a good chunk of the season. But the thing about a multi-tool is that it’s never as good at each individual task as a dedicated implement will be.

That’s the potential pitfall with Happ, though Theo Epstein (per Sharma) expressed belief that the young ballplayer is dedicated to implementing his tools in order to get better.

“He’s got a lot of work to do to stay an option in center field,” Epstein said. “And I think he’ll put in the work and be an option in center field. He’s got a lot of work to do to stay as an option for second base. And I think he’ll put in the work. He can certainly play the corner outfield and he can be a candidate to back us up at third base. This kid is already a productive big-league player and he hasn’t, necessarily, started to scratch the surface of what he can be with some refinement.”

“The biggest factor with him is he wants to be great,” Epstein said. “Every day he’s studying his at-bats, asking questions, wants to know what he should differently and why. Wants us to explain why things should be done differently and dives right in. He has that special something that pushes great players to max out their potential. I’m really excited about him. You’ll find a lot of fans of him in this organization and that clubhouse.”

Happ’s got a “lot of work to do to stay an option” at two different positions and he’s clearly a backup to at least two others, which points toward him being a trade chip. But he’s got the drive to be great and is hungry to learn, garnering respect from veteran teammates and front office members alike, which points toward him being a building block.

What I keep coming back to in all of this is where the Cubs are in their competitive window and who else they’ve got on the roster. Happ would have been the perfect player for a 2015 team that could afford to call prospects up early and let them develop on the fly. Given the additional chiseling and polishing required of his particular block of marble, however, I can’t help but think he might be a better fit elsewhere.

The work required to become an everyday [insert position here] can’t be done in the offseason or during spring training. And giving Happ enough innings to properly develop means taking that time away from at least one other player. Which means using either Albert Almora Jr. or Javy Baez much less than their talents would otherwise dictate. Then you’ve got Ben Zobrist, who should bounce back at least a little bit and who needs a few spots to play as well.

Happ’s ceiling might be a little higher than Almora’s, but his defense and strikeouts mean that his floor is lower. And as far as super-athletic, do-everything players go, there’s no way Happ surpasses Baez at second base. With nearly every other starter firmly entrenched at their respective positions, the only possible opening would be Kyle Schwarber and left field. But I still hold that the Cubs see enough potential in Schwarber that they’ll do everything they can to keep him there.

Had he come along a couple years earlier, I believe Happ would indeed have been a player around whom the Cubs could build. As it is, however, the confluence of his talent and his team’s needs may well find him displaying his work ethic elsewhere. Or maybe his intrinsic value will outstrip how he’s viewed in what could be a shifting market, thus keeping him in Chicago.

I suppose what I’m driving at is that the Cubs can’t really go wrong where Happ’s future is concerned, though I’m not sure they can necessarily go right, either. And to that end, I’m really not confident predicting how things will work out.

What do you think, dear reader: Is Happ an expendable piece who can help land a pitcher or is he an integral piece who can help land another World Series title?

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