Ian Happ Decision Looms, Jon Lester Overcomes Throwing Issues, and Other Bullets

What a good series all around that was against the Reds, eh? It wasn’t just that the Cubs pulled off their first sweep of the year, it was that they got solid contributions in all phases of the game for what seems like the first series of the year. The bats were clicking, the starters pitched well and into the later innings, and the bullpen tightened up when needed.

Playing against a now-under-.500-probably-for-good Reds team didn’t hurt either, as the Cubs had previously played the toughest schedule in the NL.

  • Ian Happ reached base another three times yesterday, knocking a double, a single, and drawing a walk. It’s a nothingburger sample size, but Happ is hitting an LOL .353/.500/.824 through his first 22 plate appearances, is absolutely crushing the ball when he makes contact, and is walking and striking out in equal measure when he doesn’t (22.7%). The young man has the look of a player who belongs, but the roster and the lineup needs are unquestionably a complicating factor here, as we’ve discussed this week. Jason Heyward is due back any day now after a rehab start at South Bend last night, and when he returns, he’s going to start almost every day. That reduces the available playing time for Happ – or Javy Baez or Ben Zobrist – significantly, and the questions of what’s best for the near-term 2017 Cubs, what’s best for the late-season 2017 Cubs, what’s best for the long-term Cubs, and what’s best for Happ all stew together in a difficult pot.
  • Of course, Joe Maddon is all about simplicity, and he said – joked? – after the game yesterday, asking rhetorically whether Happ’s performance is making things tough on the Cubs … or making things easy (Cubs.com). If we kept things extremely simple, you’d look at what Happ has done so far, you’d consider his potential, and you’d say “well, gotta keep playing him right now,” and then you sort out everything else from there.
  • As far as the roster goes, if Happ does stick around after Heyward returns, the Cubs are likely to stick with eight relievers, which means Albert Almora Jr. or Tommy La Stella would have to go back to AAA Iowa. I love having both of those guys available on the bench, though I suppose if you’re starting Happ every day, that’s going to push to the bench a guy like Baez or Zobrist or whichever other nominal starter. So it’s not as if the bench necessarily gets worse.
  • (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

  • Yesterday’s starter Jon Lester had a fantastic outing, his three earned runs notwithstanding (two scored after he’d left, and had reached base on medium-struck groundballs that found holes). Lester got 13 whiffs on the day, struck out five, and walked just one. He also gave up no stolen bases, which is probably in part a recognition that he’s no longer quite as easy to just walk out to second base on:
  • To that end, SI dug into the long and tortured history of Lester’s infamous problems throwing to bases, in particular first base. And then it steered into how Lester overcame those yips: not by mastering his throw to first base, but by a combination of best-we-can-do half measures, and Lester simply not letting it bother him. Given how easy it would be for the issue to hang over him and frustrate him as runners dance wildly off of first base, he has the ability to just shrug and continue focusing on the batter. Whatever you might say of the mental block that causes the throwing issue in the first place, Lester clearly has a strong mental constitution to be able to pitch like he does in spite of it.
  • Luke updated the latest on Dylan Cease this morning (he says he’s OK), and CSN has a good write up on the process that brought Cease into the organization in the first place.
  • Anthony Rizzo’s Cook Off for Cancer event raised more than $1 million last night.
  • A great read on the Cubs’ revamped mental skills program in the minor leagues, through the lens of pitching prospect Dillon Maples, who has had so many ups and downs since he was drafted back in 2011. The now 25-year-old is a full-time reliever at High-A, striking out 33.0% of the batters he faces and getting a ton of ground balls. The 11.0% BB rate still gives you pause, and it’s rare that even the most dominant A-ball relievers make their way up to the big leagues (most big league relievers were still succeeding as starters in the upper levels of the minor leagues). But Maples has a special arm and the prospect pedigree that earns him a little extra attention.
  • As Michael noted yesterday in the MLBits, top Cuban prospect Luis Robert is on the Cardinals’ radar, and Jeff Passan reports that they and the White Sox are the finalists. The price tag could top $20 million, and Robert is eligible to sign as soon as tomorrow.
  • Also in the Bits, but I want to mention it here: Jung-Ho Kang has reportedly lost his appeal in South Korea (third DUI conviction), and probably will not be able to come back to the States this season, or maybe ever. It’s a blow to the Pirates, who are also without Jameson Taillon (surgery for testicular cancer) and Starling Marte (PED suspension) for a long stretch. Losing three expected key contributors for much of the season is crippling, even for a team with good upper-minors depth like the Pirates. It was reasonable to view the Pirates as the Cubs’ biggest threat in the NL Central coming into the season (and we did), but that is no longer the case.
  • Facebook has an agreement with MLB to live stream one game per week for free (not unlike what Twitter has been doing), which is cool news in its own right, but the big news: no blackouts. This is the first example of streaming without the massive regional blackouts in effect. It would mean that it *is possible* for MLB and its network partners to negotiate around the issue.
  • A whole bunch of Under Armour stuff is a Deal of the Day at Amazon, as well as another portable bluetooth speaker (78% off).
  • written by

    Brett Taylor is the Lead Cubs Writer at Bleacher Nation, and you can find him on Twitter at @BleacherNation and on LinkedIn here. Brett is also the founder of Bleacher Nation, which opened up shop in 2008 as an independent blog about the Chicago Cubs. Later growing to incorporate coverage of other Chicago sports, Bleacher Nation is now one of the largest regional sports blogs on the web.

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