For the longest time, the big names in the Chicago Cubs’ farm system were like precursors to stories of legend. We all had heard about the wonders of Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. They were building their way to the major leagues for what seemed like eons, popping up on prospect lists and vaulting the Cubs to the top of the farm system rankings. But with those guys now well entrenched in the big leagues, there are new names popping up on the Cubs’ prospect list.
Ian Happ, the 22-year-old that the Cubs drafted with the number nine overall pick in 2015, might be drawing the most attention currently. While Happ might not be the best prospect in the system, a title that likely goes to slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez, his closer proximity to playing in the big leagues helps him dominate the discussion among fans.
But, to paraphrase the Baseball Prospectus 2016 Annual comment on Happ, rising through the farm system with the Cubs as a position player is like drag racing from stoplight to stoplight. As a second baseman, Happ is ultimately blocked from being a regular in the majors.
But the Cubs have also been playing Happ in the outfield, which might be his long-term future no matter what organization he’s playing for. In his time with the organization since being drafted, Happ has played 780 innings at second base and 726 innings in the outfield, including 337 innings in center field. While he is a bit rough at times on the infield, his arm is strong enough and he has enough speed to be able to handle any of the outfield spots.
So the question now is, what does the immediate future hold for him?
The Cubs drafted Happ based on raw talent and offensive ability, with most scouts and observers agreeing that this is the kind of guy that has the potential to hit .300 with 15-20 home runs every single season. But that’s not the only thing about Happ that has impressed his organization.
“With Ian, again, it came down to the most potential impact for us as an organization,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president overseeing scouting and player development. “We love the switch-hit (ability). We liked at the time what we thought was a lot of versatility because he had moved between the outfield and the infield.
“I’d say the one thing that surprised me a little more is we probably didn’t realize just how driven this guy is when we took him. We got pretty good makeup reviews on him. But now seeing how he prepares every single day – the guy is on a mission.”
When predicting the future for Happ, the notion that he could end up being traded away from the Cubs is utterly unavoidable. For that reason, there are two very different realities we can explore.
The Cubs come into the offseason this year having a few needs going into the near future, the most important being controllable starting pitching. While Chicago has Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks, and John Lackey locked in and ready to go in 2017, only Lester and Hendricks are signed beyond next season. Left-hander Mike Montgomery, acquired from the Seattle Mariners at midseason, is a potential option as well, but his grasp on a rotation job can’t exactly be etched in stone yet.
It’s no secret that the Cubs are looking for starting pitchers right now. They’ve recently come up in rumblings regarding a deal for Chris Archer of the Tampa Bay Rays, according to ESPN’s Jim Bowden on his radio show, and that would be a game-changer for the franchise. The 28-year-old pitcher has five seasons of control for a bargain price of around $39 million, with solid career numbers, including a 3.51 ERA, 3.48 FIP, and 9.3 K/9 in 766 innings.
Any deal for Archer likely involves Happ, not to mention others such as Jorge Soler, heading to Tampa Bay. The Rays have Logan Forsythe, an underrated second baseman that has compiled 8.4 WAR over the last two seasons, which would appear to block Happ at the big league level. But Forsythe is only under contract through 2018, and might be a tantalizing trade chip for the Rays if they’re not in contention in late July—which is about the time you might realistically expect Happ to be ready for the big leagues.
If, on the other hand, Happ ends up sticking around with the Cubs, the timeline could be a bit different for him to be playing every day in a major league uniform. He hit .262/.318/.415 with eight home runs in 274 plate appearances in Double-A last season and it seems likely that he’ll head back there to start the year. A strong performance would likely lead to a quick call to Triple-A within a month or two, putting him on the fast track to the major leagues sometime around July or August.
We can’t predict the future, but the presence of Schwarber, Baez, Ben Zobrist, Albert Almora Jr., Jason Heyward, and any other outfielders the Cubs might add to their roster this offseason will be an impediment to Happ seeing time in a Cubs uniform in 2017. But Schwarber would probably be the first to point out that injuries happen, and you never know what you’re going to need throughout the season.
The best-case scenario for Happ is that he’s playing on an everyday basis in the major leagues in the second half of 2017, showcasing his abundant hitting skills and intelligence on the diamond. Will that be with the Cubs? At this point, too much is unknown to say for sure. But with Happ’s polish and tremendous talent, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against him.