Chicago Cubs 2016 NL Central Championship Gear

ian happ south bend cubsThe Cubs’ first pick in the 2015 draft is Number Six on the latest Top 40 list, and thus the sixth to be written up in this winter’s Prospects Progress. Ladies and Gentlemen, Ian Happ! (Previously: Albert Almora, Pierce Johnson, Gleyber Torres, Billy McKinney, and Willson Contreras.)

Notice I did not list a position for Happ. He played center field immediately after the draft in 2015, as well as the corners once he reached full-season ball, and is apparently slated to move to second base for 2016, but in reality I think he could handle just about anything but shortstop and catcher if the Cubs’ needed him to. And he might not even embarrass himself at those spots, either.

Happ is a switch hitter who has a chance to hit for both average and power. We don’t have too much on him in the way of statistics, but what we do have is quite promising. He hit nine home runs between Eugene and South Bend after the draft in 2015, stole ten bases, and maintained double digit walk rates in the process. This success was to some degree expected, given that he was a college bat taken fairly early in the first round, but it is good to see the success regardless.

The strikeout rate stayed in the low 20% range at both stops, but, given the power he showed, that really isn’t too much of a problem yet. His .208 ISO in Eugene is nice, but the follow up act of a .207 ISO in the pitching-friendly Midwest League is fairly impressive. If we set the minimum threshold to 160 place appearances so Happ qualifies, his .207 ISO would rank 6th in the league. I expected some power from Happ when he was drafted, but so far we’ve seen more than expected.

His swing needs some work from both sides of the plate, possibly a little more work from the right side since (according to the man himself) he did not often face left-handed pitching in college, and the development of his swing will likely be one of the things the Cubs monitor the most closely. It sometimes takes longer for switch hitters to fully develop their offensive game (Jeimer Candelario is another example of this), so odds are good that we will not see Happ making a sprint through the minors as fast as Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber did.

When (and, of course, if) he does make it to the majors, he has the potential to be a good average, high on base hitter with better than average power and enough speed to be a threat on the base paths. Depending on what the rest of the line up looks like, he could find a place at the top or bottom of the order (and on many teams that have fewer good hitters than the Cubs, he could be a middle of the lineup guy as well). I suspect his OBP will be the biggest part of his game, but that the OBP will come with enough swing and miss to make him a better fit as a 7th hitter (or 9th in a Maddon lineup), but that remains to be seen. That’s all relatively far down the road.

As far as his glove is concerned, we should probably go ahead and talk about Ben Zobrist. In this era, any good-hitting switch-hitter with defensive versatility is going to be compared to Zobrist (and the switch-hitter part is optional… as is the good-hitting part in some cases), and it is only a matter of time before Happ gets saddled with the title of ‘The Next Ben Zobrist’ or ‘Yet Another Ben Zobrist’ or ‘Ian “The Other Zobrist” Happ’.

And, in this case, that comparison may be somewhat valid. Although I think Happ will be a very different sort of hitter from Zobrist (Zobrist makes more consistent  contact for one thing), and while Happ may not match Zobrist in terms of caliber of defense at every position, I do like Happ’s chances of providing a similar overall value with the bat while playing quality defense in all three outfield positions and at second base. In fact, if Zobrist remains the Cubs’ primary second baseman for the next few seasons, it is not impossible that Happ will be the literal Heir of Zobrist at the keystone in Wrigley.

If Happ remains at second. He played in the outfield in 2015 (and played pretty well there), but it sounds like the Cubs would like to try him full time at second base. Given the sheer volume of good outfield prospects in the organization right now, and given Happ’s experience in the infield in college, attempting that transition makes a lot of sense. If it works and Happ proves to be average (or better) at second, and his bat develops to its potential, then the Cubs will have a very valuable infield prospect.

The next step for Happ will likely be a trip to Myrtle Beach to open the 2016 season. A good half season there could see him promoted to Double A Tennessee, but given that switch-hitters often need more development time and that he is effectively changing positions, I will not be surprised if he spends all year with the Pelicans. Regardless, by the end of 2016, we should have a much clearer picture of his defensive value, offensive potential, and projected time table.

For now I would say that his absolute best case scenario would have him a candidate for a Major League call up in the middle of 2017, but early-to-mid-2018 is probably more likely.

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