Whether or not he’s ultimately selected for The Midsummer Classic, Ian Happ is playing at an All-Star caliber level this season.
At the plate, Happ has transformed himself into an on-base machine with a sub-20% strikeout rate and a .279/.376/.459 (132 wRC+) slash line — 4th among all NL outfielders. And the ability to focus solely on left field has improved his defensive value in very visible ways. It’s early, but so far, his 1.9 fWAR makes him a top-10 outfielder in the game and puts him on pace for a 4.0+ WAR season. It also ties his previous single-season high for WAR, and we’re not even into July!
So … now what, right? Given the Cubs’ positioning this year and overall as an organization, some planning is probably prudent.
Happ, 27, is making $6.85 million this season and is under control via arbitration in 2023, as well (if you’re trying to ballpark it, he’ll likely make something like $9-$11 million next season). The Cubs, then, have a few options: trade Happ, extend Happ, do nothing for now and see what happens in the offseason/next spring/next deadline (if they were selling AGAIN next year (gulp)). Nothing has to happen right now, but because of the coming Trade Deadline, the discussion does start now.
To that end, if the Cubs intend to trade Happ at all, it’s hard to imagine a better time than this deadline.
Not only is he playing at the top of his game, in the middle of his prime, with another year of cheap team control available (making him attractive to a great many teams with a variety of budgets and competitive outlines), but he also offers a strong outfield bat in a market starved for exactly that. And with Cubs President Jed Hoyer’s recent reminder comments about preferring to trade a player too early than too late, well, I’m just not surprised to see the conversation begin.
And make no mistake, it has begun. So far, the actual rumors have been of the general variety, but they’re popping up all over.
“At some point, you get numb to it,” Happ said of trade rumors. “You get numb to it, and you just have to go do your job every day. I’ve said this before, we’ve all been through a stretch where there’s been rumors. Playing in this market — whether it was the offseason or midseason where that kind of stuff was swirling — you’ve been through it at some point.”
In both articles, you’ll find comments about how much Happ wants to stay in Chicago long-term, citing his love for Wrigley Field and the fans that show up and get “excited about a 1-0 win after 10 straight losses.” But it’s not as if he’s unaware of the possibility of a move.
The question, then, is what SHOULD the Cubs do. While not advocating (yet) for a particular approach, we can talk through what they would look like.
For example, what does it look like and what does it mean if the Cubs trade Happ next month?
Stepping back, we know that 2022 is now a lost season. So the value Happ would provide on the field to the Cubs in the second half is, with apologies, of negligible value. Trading Happ means “losing” very little for 2022. Ultimately, the consideration of “what is lost” is about 2023.
The Cubs actually do have some theoretical ways to fill left field in 2023, if Happ were gone. Setting aside guys like Seiya Suzuki and Christopher Morel, you’ve got the possibility of Brennen Davis coming up in 2023. There is also a group of outfielders behind him at Triple-A-ish, who may or may not emerge as viable 2023 starters (Nelson Velazquez, Darius Hill, Narciso Crook, Jared Young, Jackson Frazier, etc.). Maybe that route works out, maybe it doesn’t, but you also have free agency, where the corner outfield is among the easier positions to target. There’s also the outside shot of doing something like putting Patrick Wisdom in left field while someone externally was added on the left side of the infield.
So THEORETICALLY replacing Happ in 2023 isn’t as daunting as replacing, say, a catcher like Willson Contreras.
… But I still don’t like what a deal would probably mean for the 2023 season. Can you really look at the replacement options and say with confidence that it wouldn’t be a considerable downgrade from Ian Happ’s projected performance in 2023?
So let’s talk about the flip side, and where trading Happ starts to look less attractive than keeping him through this deadline.
It’s impossible for me to sit here and tell you that trading Happ now would definitely mean punting on the 2023 season (setting aside whatever value it might bring the Cubs in the long-term), but it certainly wouldn’t be a good start. Willson Contreras already has one foot out the door, so trading Happ would subtract the two best hitters from a team that is already among the worst in MLB.
And don’t forget, Happ is still just 27 years old. He’s six days YOUNGER than Seiya Suzuki. If the Cubs believe Suzuki will be around for the next great Cubs team, there’s no reason Happ can’t also be a part of that plan — in fact, that’s especially true if they believe that improvements to his (1) approach from the right side of the plate and (2) strikeout rate are real. It just opens up a lot of options. You’d only HOPE to get someone at his age with his potential outlook over the next 3-4 years. (I’m trying to think: if Happ were a free agent this offseason, wouldn’t we be eying him as an intriguing young talent for the Cubs to pursue on a multi-year deal?)
So then, an extension?
Well, outside of Happ saying he’d love to stick around, we haven’t gotten a whiff of that, and the Cubs didn’t present anything like that this spring. Next spring – one season out from free agency – is a reasonable time to try, but again, that’s the crux of this conversation in the first place. The Cubs might just want to sell high, especially if they’re getting as much trade interest as it seems.
So, in sum, you can still compete next season even if you trade Ian Happ at the coming Trade Deadline, but I’ll be a lot less confident in the Cubs 2023 outlook if they do. Maybe that’s still worth it if the trade return is substantial enough, but this is the general shape of the conversation.
(Brett Taylor contributed to this post.)