Ian Happ took over for Kris Bryant as the Cubs’ union rep and it appears he may have inherited a labor beef in the process. Bryant’s service time grievance was just settled last January after almost five years of feet-dragging and now Happ will likely be sitting down across the arbitration table from a team that wants to pay him less than what he feels he’s worth.
That’s entirely unsurprising in light of Happ’s career in general, not to mention a disparate 2020 season that saw him go from dark-horse MVP candidate to borderline unplayable. There’s a strong case to be made that the drop-off was a direct consequence of fouling a ball off his eye, but the Cubs will surely argue that it was another example of the same kind of inconsistent play that saw Happ demoted for most of 2019.
The switch-hitting outfielder posted a 119 wRC+ and .819 OPS in the leadoff spot — where David Ross has him penciled in for ’21 — in 2020 after taking over for an injured Bryant. Thing is, those numbers were at 193 and 1.132 before Happ did too good a job keeping his eye on the ball on September 2.
The arbitration process is often a nasty one as both sides plead their respective cases, so the Cubs will surely point to the last few weeks while also discounting the early hot stretch as a function of the abbreviated season. Happ, on the other hand, has been openly critical of the way MLB owners have cried poor and will be seeking to score one for the union. That won’t be easy because both the stats and history are stacked against him.
Extrapolating his numbers over a full season will help, as will touting his performance in 2019 after being promoted, but the Cubs will surely have a wealth of information pointing to holes in his game at the plate and in the field.
It should also be noted that the Cubs have “won” their two most recent cases against Justin Grimm (2018) and Ryan Theriot (2010), only the first of which came during Jed Hoyer’s tenure. Happ has a much stronger case than Grimm, who had clearly lost the edge and was clearly fighting an uphill battle. In fact, the Cubs almost certainly welcomed arbitration with Grimm because salaries awarded through that process are not fully guaranteed.
Even though they’re not looking for a reason to make Happ prove himself at the risk of being cut, his track record lends itself to arbitration. He probably isn’t asking for an exorbitant raise over the $624,000 he would have made last season, though the high-end estimates had him getting as much as $4.6 million. That would mark the biggest increase in both amount and percentage from among the Cubs’ five eligible players
Kris Bryant settled for $19.5 million (a $900K raise), Javy Báez settled for $11.65 million ($1.65M), Willson Contreras got $6.65 million ($2.25M), and Zach Davies will earn $8.63 million ($3.5M). Happ will earn less than any of them regardless of how his hearing comes out, now it’s just a matter of how much less.
Update: Happ asked for $4.1 million, the Cubs countered with $3.25 million. Not surprising in the least.