Chicago Cubs Prospect Ian Happ: Utility Player or Future Star?

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Chicago Cubs Prospect Ian Happ: Utility Player or Future Star?

Cubs Minor Leagues and Prospects

Ian Happ is generally considered to be among the best overall prospects in the Cubs’ organization; in the mid-season edition of the Top 40 Prospects List, I ranked him third. Eloy Jimenez and Jeimer Candelario both slotted in ahead of Happ. Baseball America’s recent system ranking had Happ second only to Jimenez.

There is a lot to like about Ian Happ: the patience at the plate, the smooth switch-hitting swing, the defensive versatility, the above-average power, the intelligence on the basepaths, to name a few. The tools are very definitely there for Happ to turn in a Major League player who produces at an above-average rate.

But there are also some red flags. His defense everywhere I have watched him leaves something to be desired. His very impressive .885 OPS in the first half of 2016 with Myrtle Beach fell to a much more pedestrian .733 in the second half of the season with Double A Tennessee, and a big part of that fall off was the hundred point drop in his OBP.

Much of this article is going to sound fairly negative, but don’t let that worry you. Happ, I think, has a very high floor. The hair I am trying to split here is whether Happ projects more as a versatile utility guy with a roughly league average bat in the Majors, or if he projects more as a defensively-flexible starter who can produce at a well above-average rate at the plate. In other words, does Happ look more like a Mark Bellhorn or a Ben Zobrist?

Neither are bad. If the Cubs wound up with Bellhorn level production from Happ over the next few seasons I think they would be thrilled. [Brett: Extremely thrilled if he was the Cubs’ version of Bellhorn – in his one year with the team in 2002, the versatile defender appeared at every infield position and in the outfield, and hit .258/.374/.512. He was worth 3.9 WAR that year.]

But when so many prospect analysts are ranking Happ at the top of the farm system, the question of stardom is going to come up. And on that count, I still need to see more.

At The Plate

Happ’s bat will probably carry him to the Major Leagues. Even after his production fell off in Tennessee he still finished with a line of .262/.318/.415 with eight homers and six steals over 65 games, and those numbers were trending upwards. He very definitely struggled during his .222/.248/.296 July, but he also adjusted and improved his line to .232/.330/.400 in August. Those jumps in OBP and SLG are what allowed him to finish up in Tennessee with a wRC+ of 111 (down from 147 in High A).

And I think those numbers will jump again when he hits Iowa this year. Perhaps not as much as we saw from Jeimer Candelario, but still by a fair amount. A huge year or half-year in Triple A will likely get the ‘future star’ conversations going in Chicago.

The problem is that his strikeout rate will probably also tick up (it was 21.9% in Tennessee), and it will tick up again when he gets to Chicago. As a Major League hitter, I strongly suspect Happ is going to wind up with a very good walk rate around 10% and a strikeout rate around 25%. Historically Happ has maintained a BABIP in the low .300 range. If we project him to stay in that range in the majors, depending on exactly what numbers you use, you wind up with a hitter with a line of roughly .235/.330/.400. That OPS would have ranked him 18th in the majors among second basemen in 2016, right between two guys named Starlin Castro and Scooter Gennett, with a wRC+ of about 92.

If he is going to improve on that mark, those improvements will almost certainly have to come by either reducing the strikeout rate or making harder contact on the balls he does hit (which would in turn raise his BABIP and SLG). Or both. Fortunately for Happ, the Cubs have an organizational hitting philosophy that has had success in helping hitters improve in exactly those areas. If you are an optimist, then, you can probably imagine Happ getting close to a Matt Carpenter level of production. I don’t think quite that level is likely, but it’s worth remembering that 2016 was Happ’s first full professional season.

Still, as a second baseman, Happ realistically projects to be a solid if not spectacular Major League regular. That is pretty good floor. If he can stay at second.

In The Field

I am very much looking forward to seeing new video of Happ in the field. I have no doubt he has been working extremely hard on his defense, and we have already seen some of the results of that work. When I watched him play second early in 2016, he was hesitant. The natural fluidity of a second baseman who is comfortable at his position just wasn’t there. When I watched him again later in the season, he was much more looking the part on routine plays. He still had some trouble with tough throws from the shortstop or tricky hops on the edge of the grass, but the progress was unmistakable.

And then Javier Baez turned pretty much the entire 2016 postseason into a clinic on second base defense. Between Zobrist and Baez, I don’t think there will be many games available at second for the Cubs over the next few years. Happ could fill in there from time to time, perhaps as part of a double switch, but the bulk of his innings are likely to be spent in the outfield. When Zobrist leaves in a few years that may change, but that day is a long way away.

His outfield defense is comparable to his work at second; improving, but with room for improvement. He can play center as well as left (I’m not sure he has the arm to be viable in right long term, but he might) if needed, and his bat would not look bad for a center fielder.

The problem, of course, is that the Cubs happen to have two the best defensive outfielders alive today in Albert Almora and Jason Heyward. I will be surprised if Almora does not play most of the innings in center over the next few years, and when he does sit to get an extra lefty in the line up it seems probable that Heyward will slide over. Heyward could leave after 2018, thereby opening up some room for Happ, but the free agent class in 2018 could result in a rather different roster anyway. I’m not sure there is much room for Happ in center in the near or long term. Not as a regular, anyway.

Left field in Wrigley seems likely to become the place where manager Joe Maddon stick a bat he doesn’t have any other room for in the line up. We saw it previously with Kyle Schwarber when he wasn’t catching, with Willson Contreras when he wasn’t catching, Kris Bryant when someone else was playing third, Ben Zobrist when Javy Baez was at second, etc. That is where the Cubs will be finding their left fielders. Happ’s bat may not be valuable enough to join that group immediately.

That leaves the bench in the nearer term, and, as a switch hitter with power and patience who can play multiple positions, Happ could have a very bright future as a guy off the bench. He could fill in when someone is injured, even taking over regular innings if necessary, and otherwise could turn into one of Maddon’s go to guys in the event of a double switch.

For 2017

Look for Happ to head to Iowa (possibly by way of an opening stint back at Tennessee), play most of his innings at second with a fair bit of time in the outfield (and maybe at third), and to put up very good numbers in the Pacific Coast League.

And then look for him to come up in rumors at the trade deadline. No matter how much depth the Cubs build into their roster, they will need to fill a hole at midseason, and that hole will very likely be on the mound. They will need to rent another reliever for a few months, or pick up another spot starter, or maybe even finally add a regular rotation arm. Any of those deals would involve the Cubs sending out one of their best prospects. And, given Happ’s bat and proximity to the Majors, he could be an attractive target to trade partners.

Should Happ stick around in the organization, a late-season appearance in the big leagues, if necessary, is possible, though a 2018 debut seems more likely.


Author: Luke Blaize

Luke Blaize is the Minor League Editor at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @ltblaize.