By Todd Johnson
The biggest surprise to happen in Chicago this year was not an injury. Rather, it has been the play of Ian Happ and the reliance of the Cubs to depend on him for 105 games so far.
After the 2016 minor league season, I did not think that Happ was ready for the majors let alone AAA. In 2016 in his first full season as a pro, he was devastating at high A Myrtle Beach and was inconsistent at AA Tennessee with a horrid August as he was physically and mentally worn down. When spring training began in 2017, Ian showed renewed vigor and looked like he belonged with the major league club on a daily basis. Had it been a different era, he probably would’ve broke camp with Chicago. Instead, he was sent back to Iowa.
Happ’s situation was far different than Kris Bryant’s from a couple years ago. During Happ’s brief 1.5 year minor league career, he definitely showed that he could hit for power. I first saw him live in Beloit, Wisconsin two months after he was drafted. I came away a bit mystified at how good of an athlete he was and how beautifully his hands went through the hitting zone.
Now that he has a good body of work in the majors, I still am perplexed by how much he has changed things in Chicago. I think his ascension has been a transformational moment for him and for a few other players. I think it’s clear the Cubs love his ability to hit from both sides of the plate and to do so with power. I think the Cubs also love the fact that he he can play all three outfield positions and second base. He was even willing to take a few grounders at third a month ago just in case Bryant’s pinky was not going to heal quickly.
It’s not as if Happ has destroyed the careers of other players on the team but he has clearly jumped ahead of them on the depth chart and on the lineup card. I just didn’t see that coming this year. At the end of last year, I thought he might be ready (keyword there is might) in the middle of 2018 if all went right.
Here is who Happ’s ascension has had a direct impact on:
1. Albert Almora – After the postseason last year, the Cubs let Dexter Fowler go I thought in part to the fact that Almora was more than likely MLB ready. In the last month, Almora has tore it up against right handed pitching. Still, Happ has been the starter in most games in center. Happ has a lot to learn defensively compared to Almora’s capabilities. I don’t think the Cubs have given up on Albert. Rather, I just don’t know if they’re ready to rely on him full-time or as much as they have relied on Happ in a variety of situations. Happ’s ability to switch hit has to be a factor in Almora’s lack of playing time. 22 HRs don’t hurt either.
2. Tommy La Stella – The fact La Stella found his way to Iowa this year says more about Happ than it does about La Stella. I have always liked Tommy’s bat, but he’s not the most athletic player and Happ’s athletic ability to switch hit with power has pushed La Stella further down the Cubs bench. As a back up, La Stella has hardly gotten much playing time this year and the future doesn’t look much brighter.
3. Kyle Schwarber – I think Happ’s rise to prominence in May made it easier to send Schwarber down to Iowa a little over a month later. Had the Cubs not gotten that kind of power and production from Happ, I don’t know if they might have let Kyle work it out in the majors. Manager Joe Maddon seems to have relied more and more on Happ the past two months than he has on Schwarber. From pinch hitting to playing late in games, Happ gets the first call.
4. Mark Zagunis and Bijan Rademacher both put up outstanding years at AAA Iowa. In the second half of the year, neither got a sniff of the majors (even in September) due in large part to Happ’s performance. Going forward, I don’t even think there’s a fifth spot for a couple of years now for them or fellow outfield prospect Charcer Burks, who should be at Iowa in 2018.
5. Ben Zobrist – I don’t know how long the Cubs are going to hang onto Zobrist now. After this season, he has two years left on his deal. I can see him hanging around now more in a bench capacity as a result of Happ’s breakout season.
I think Happ’s emergence and it’s impact will be felt even more this off-season. If the Cubs make a deal to acquire more starting pitching, the Cubs will be doing so with players that I think are not seen as valuable or as essential because of Happ. Now, I’m not saying that Almora or Schwarber will be traded this offseason. I’m saying that Happ’s rise as a Cub has made the trading of other players more probable and easier to swallow.
I am looking forward to seeing Ian in the playoffs. I hope that he can respond as well as the other players listed above him did in 2015 and 2016. I think that’s going to be the ultimate test for Cub fans. For now, though, it has been a pretty impressive rookie season.