Whether or not Ian Happ takes my home run/Lake Michigan challenge (he knows I’ll take him way out onto Waveland), I’ll be pulling for him to break out this season. There’s just something about his particular combination of speed, power, and patience, all wrapped up in a young switch-hitter that gets me particularly excited about his potential.
Sure, he’s got some very real contact issues, but he also has so little big league exposure. In fact, he’s stepped up to the plate fewer than any other member of the Cubs’ young core:
Ian Happ: 875
Albert Almora: 919
Willson Contreras: 1,255
Kyle Schwarber: 1,274
Javy Baez: 1,912
Kris Bryant: 2,471
And that, in turn, came after a mere 978 plate appearances in the minor leagues before he hit the Majors.
Needless to say, I think Happ could use some more at-bats before we land anywhere on his strikeout issues (and by the way, even with a massive strikeout rate last season, he was still 6% better than the league average hitter (9% for his career) – it matters a little bit how you get there, but also, it kinda doesn’t.).
But if we want to see him getting lots of plate appearances this year, the real question is where is he going to get them? Because it’s not like he has an obvious, set position, right?
For his part, Happ split his Minor League career between the infield and the outfield, and has spent most of his time at third base, second base, and all three outfield spots in the Majors. Presently, the Cubs have first, short, and third locked down, plus some combination of Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, and David Bote at second base. Then, after Addison Russell returns from his domestic violence suspension, the middle infield gets even more crowded.
The outfield figures to be where Happ spends most of his time this season, but even there, he has competition in the form of Kyle Schwarber, Jason Heyward, and Albert Almora … and then also Zobrist, Descalso, and Bryant at other times.
The answer, then, is not necessarily to find one position Happ can play every day, but ensuring that he can play almost every position on any one given day. And that’s just what he’s told the Cubs this winter:
Over the winter, Ian Happ talked to Joe Maddon and made it clear he wants to be part of 2B picture in 2019. Cubs plan for Happ includes OF still (obviously) plus 3B and 1B.
"He wants us to know he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup," Maddon said.
— Tony Andracki (@TonyAndracki23) February 17, 2019
If Happ is able to mix in at first, second, third, left, right, and center field, he should have no trouble finding at-bats in 2019 (so long as his stick is still working for him).
Clearly, Happ wants to do whatever he can to get in there: “He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base,” Maddon said. “… He wants for me and us to know that he’ll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we’re facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield’s set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He’s smart. It’s just about him wanting to get into the lineup.”
I think, at this point, it’s fair to assume the Cubs haven’t quite seen enough out of Happ at second base to consider him the permanent starter there (I’m sure they would have been thrilled if he had), but if he can somehow manage to take some steps forward there this Spring, he can really seize an opportunity in the early parts of the 2019 season (when Russell is out, Zobrist is resting for the second-half, and Descalso is still a bit of a question mark).
Maddon discussed Happ’s potential at second base with NBC Sports Chicago: “When you watch him, he’s still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he’s effective. I’ve seen some really good defenders that aren’t necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don’t make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He’s got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.” From the sounds of it, Happ might really get a chance to show what he can do at second base, at least perhaps in Spring Training.
Brett is a big believer in Happ’s potential in the outfield – and I don’t disagree with him – but I think the better long-term fit for this roster is probably right there at second base. You don’t want to eliminate the whole versatile component of his game, obviously, but there’s value in not needing to have a rotation, improving the depth chart elsewhere. [Brett: I’ll jump in and put some additional words in Michael’s mouth: I think he looks ahead and sees a scenario where it would be really nice for the Cubs if Javy Baez was the long-term shortstop, and Happ was the long-term second baseman. If Happ could do it, there’s an obvious fit there. But he has yet to show he can really be an everyday second baseman, as opposed to a versatile guy who can slide in from time to time. Plus, for me, as Michael said, I think Happ can emerge as a very solid defensive outfielder with more reps.]
Regardless of where Happ spends most of his time, I believe we’ll see a lot of Happ in 2019. Either directly or indirectly, he can spell Kris Bryant (who’s coming off a shoulder injury), Anthony Rizzo (who deals with back issues every season), Jason Heyward (who’s no longer going to be just granted playing time), and Kyle Schwarber. On top of that, of course, he’ll get regular starts at center field, and perhaps, at second base.
And here he is in a hot-wheels car come-to-life, because why not?
Shoutout to @polarisslingshot hooking me up with this beast for Spring Training! Be on the lookout I’ll be rolling around AZ 👀 pic.twitter.com/yEZkjXzMI2
— Ian Happ (@ihapp_1) February 18, 2019