In his wide-ranging, and apparently oft-misinterpreted, season-ending press conference, Chicago Cubs President Theo Epstein dropped a line that we’ve all been musing upon for months. We thought he was talking about fundamental changes to the roster in the offseason, but, whether he was or wasn’t at the time, his words have come to be about something else entirely. And maybe this weekend’s surprising option of Ian Happ are the proof.
“It’s time to stop evaluating in terms of talent and start doing it in terms of production.”
Viewing the decision to send a struggling (last year and into Spring Training), but deeply talented, Ian Happ to AAA Iowa to start the season through that lens, isn’t it fair to say the Cubs just practiced what Epstein preached?
I guess so. I think I was caught up in the surprise of what happened last night, and didn’t quite have enough time to step back, take a breath, and really try to think about why the decision was being made, and why it was unanimous among the front office, the talent evaluators, and the coaching staff.
When Kyle Schwarber was sent to AAA Iowa in the middle of the 2017 season, it was surprising in the sense that it was such a dramatic maneuver to give Schwarber some head space, but it was not surprising in the sense that we’d been kicking around the merits of such an idea for several weeks before it happened.
With Happ, here, it probably feels a lot more surprising than it should, given his second half in 2018. With a night of sleep behind me, I suppose I can think about this: if Happ had put up those same numbers – .196/.313/.340, 36.8% strikeout rate – in the first half of a season, and if he were just 24 years old with very limited professional experience (as he is now), then we wouldn’t really think twice about talking about whether the Cubs should send him down.
The fact that a new season lays ahead, then, probably shouldn’t be a reason not to make this decision. Could Happ have contributed well to this team in a part-time role right out of the gate? Absolutely. Is he probably better, in a vacuum, than whatever player ultimately replaces him on the roster? I would bet yes. But that’s not the entirety of what goes into this decision, including even if you’re thinking about what’s best for the 2019 Cubs over the course of an entire season.
I really hope, with some time and distance, Happ can put this decision in the proper context, and then truly attack the contact portion of his game. He already has skills you cannot tech easily: high-end hard contact ability, great loft, good discipline, switch-hitting ability. For him to become the best version of himself, maybe he needs this step back – be it a month or two months or a half of a year – to get regular playing time at AAA and work on specific things.
If it all works out as hoped, then the decision to open Happ now could not only improve him for the long term, but could also actually wind up helping the 2019 Cubs more than if he’d stayed on the roster from Day One and contributed as best he could in fits and spurts.
Some very fitting and thoughtful words from veteran Jon Lester, whom I hope will get a chance to talk to Happ about this stuff when Happ has had a chance to cool down after an understandably negative reaction:
Jon Lester, on Ian Happ being sent back to Triple-A… pic.twitter.com/dAe31oAVr4
— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) March 24, 2019