With only three weeks to go until the single trade deadline on July 31, the Cubs have got a lot of work to do. Not only must they suss out exactly which team weaknesses most need shoring up, they also need to determine how to best address those issues. That could mean deciding which player from among the possible trade options best solves their RISP issues, or it could also mean internal changes.
Okay, so internal changes would be necessitated by any significant move, but you get my point. Which is that there could be at least a partial solution already in the minors, though to what extent the Cubs can or should actually trust such a solution is very much up for debate.
I guess it really shouldn’t be up for debate at all, since standing pat with what they’ve currently got in the system is a really bad idea. Unless they come out of the gate blazing hot and extend their division lead to several games, Theo Epstein has to deliver on the promise of significant changes he’s now made more than once. But he’s also got to hedge his bets, which leaves potential for promotions that could impact the Cubs in the second half.
Some recent trends with a pair of versatile players may well portend future moves, with one standing out as coming sooner and bearing much greater significance. As the title indicates, we’re speaking about Ian Happ and Nico Hoerner, both of whom are being deployed a bit differently of late.
Happ has played primarily in center during his time at Triple-A Iowa, making 64 of his 79 starts there this season (he has been the DH a few times as well) and playing there in 67 of 87 total defensive appearances. By contrast, he has only made 13 starts at second and has played there just 19 times in that same span. However, five of those starts and six total games played at second base have come in Iowa’s last 11 games.
So that means — and pardon my scratch-pad math — Happ had only started about 12% of games at second and had played there in about 17% of total games prior to June 27. Since then, he’s started 45% of games at second and has appeared in 55% of what is admittedly a very small sample when it comes to figuring percentages. Still, it can’t be denied that the Cubs (maybe just Iowa, but probably Chicago) want to see Happ on the infield more frequently.
That’s something we saw this spring as well and it could factor in Happ’s overall comfort level. He has never given up on playing second and was getting more run there in Mesa before the regular season started, so maybe this is a means by which to accelerate a learning curve that has so far been steeper than either Happ or the Cubs would have liked.
Over the last 10 games, a span that lines up well with the increased time at second base, Happ is hitting .325 with two home runs and just 11 strikeouts to eight walks. While that K total is neither extraordinarily low nor taken from a long enough period to be super trustworthy, it represents a much lower percentage (22.9) than he has put up for the season. He had been at around 27.5% prior to this stretch and now sits at 26.9% on the season.
Combine all that with a lack of production at second base that has seen the Cubs turn to former Italian national team member Robel Garcia and you can understand how Happ shifting more to the infield could signal his return to the bigs. Garcia has provided an excellent boost to a moribund Cubs team since his promotion, but just how long that lasts remains to be seen. Given his high swing-and-miss factor, he’s in danger of dropping off once pitchers get the book on him.
Happ’s overall athleticism, namely his ability to run the bases and run into fastballs from both sides of the plate, put him in position to take over should Garcia eventually be exposed. And the ability to play both second and center, positions from which the Cubs have gotten very disappointing offensive production, signals a call-up before long.
Another player getting more time at those same spots is Nico Hoerner, who appeared to be on the fast track prior to suffering a fractured wrist when he was hit by a pitch in late April. Despite missing just over two months to the injury, however, last year’s top draft pick appears to be on roughly the same pace. In addition to popping a homer in his second game back with the Double-A Smokies, his positional deployment speaks to the Cubs’ future plans for him.
Hoerner played shortstop exclusively during his abbreviated 2018 season and has played a lion’s share of games there this year as well, but that could be changing. He has started at second and in center, respectively, in his last two games, the latter of which was his first appearance in the outfield for the Cubs organization. With full allowance for the sample, that positioning is reminiscent of how the Nationals used Trea Turner when he first came up.
The speedy shortstop played primarily second and center during his first two MLB campaigns before eventually sliding back to his more natural position on an exclusive basis in 2017. Hoerner doesn’t figure to get much time at short should he reach Chicago in the near future, so he’s going to need to be versatile in order to make it. Such a promotion could still come this season, even if it’s just to give him a taste of the Show when rosters expand in September.
And maybe the Cubs view Happ or Hoerner as a better option for a late-inning situational replacement than going out and finding another Terrance Gore or Quintin Berry. While the speed of the former pair can’t match the latter, perhaps overall baseball acumen and a bird-in-the-hand mentality may make them more worthwhile. Either way, you have to believe they’re better options than Daniel Descalso at this point.