ST. LOUIS — He wants to stay for the long haul. He may be gone by the end of next month.
And if he’s still around at the end of the season, it’ll only earn Ian Happ a place in the same untethered lane as the past two seasons by All-Star friends and teammates – as a trade-value short-term asset for a team nowhere close to battle.
So keep an eye out for Happ if you’re scratching your head as you try to decipher what team president Jed Hoyer’s plan (let alone timeline) is for his stripped-down roster.
Because one of the biggest indicators in the coming months of the Cubs’ direction is the man on deck behind Willson Contreras.
“Of course I hope I can stay here and be with the group long term and build something really special here,” Happ said before doubling a point home in Friday night’s 3-0 win over the Cardinals.
“That’s about as much as you have, is your hope.”
The Cubs have not approached Happ to discuss an extension, nor do he expect them to do so during the season.
Hoyer must make trades before the August 2 deadline before making that decision on Happ – All-Star catcher Contreras and high-performing defender David Robertson are the main of the inevitable departures.
And Happ could join them given the rise in his trade value as he ranks number 3 All-Star caliber numbers in the order, with an extra year of club check after this to dangle for potential suitors.
Don’t you think the White Sox could use a prolific switch-hitter with power who has become an above average defender in the outfield?
‘You just never know if that’s real; like players you just don’t know,” Happ said. “There is always speculation. But you don’t have the ability to look behind the curtain and know what’s going on.”
And on top of that, he said, “You can’t control if you’re traded, not if you get an offer to renew. So you’re just going to play every day.”
Happ, 27, is arguably the enigma on the roster for Hoyer and his front office team, especially when it comes to their post-August approach. 2 if they choose not to trade it.
As the ninth overall draft pick, Happ made his debut in rival St. Louis six weeks into the Cubs’ 2017 championship defense, hitting the first of 24 home runs in 413 at bats that season.
He’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate and a career OPS of over .800 (115 OPS+) but hasn’t made an All-Star team, in large part due to an exceptionally streaky career record (and the fact that there will be no All-Star game during the 2020 pandemic shortened season).
He has been almost too patient for long periods of time throughout his career, drawing walks but dropping out a lot and struggling from the right side for much of his career. In 2019, he was sent back to the minors for the first few months of the season before returning and finishing strong. A year ago, he was mired in the deepest slump of his career, looking more like a non-tender candidate than part of the Cubs’ long-term plans in August.
Since then, in 126 games (457 PAs) as of August 3, he hits .291 with 23 home runs, 76 RBIs and a .906 OPS – the longest stretch of consistent, sustained production of his career.
His strikeout percentage is way down; are numbers from the right side, way up since making adjustments and earning regular playing time against left-handers.
And he has the overall look of a player who has himself – if not his future – figured out.
“He looks like he’s more athletic and makes better jumps,” manager David Ross said of Happ’s improved play on left field. And he held the middle of our order while we lacked some of that consistency in the middle.
“He’s definitely been one of our All-Stars. Him and Willson.”
So what if he earns a bid this year and stays out of season for decision time?
Is he a cornerstone for Hoyer’s “next great Cubs team”? Or the next big rent-a-player trading chip from Hoyer’s homegrown core?
It’s probably an understatement to say that this is a crossroads of winter approaching for whatever Hoyer’s timeline becomes.
It could be the pivotal point for a process that starts to spin in the right direction or gets delayed for years — especially considering it’s nearly impossible to confidently identify anyone on the current roster who will be on the Cubs’ next playoff roster. (Seiya Suzuki? Justin Steele? Nico Hoerner? Are you sure?)
And this: If Hoyer, CEO Carter Hawkins and their computer records say that locking Happ up is the right move, what does Happ have to say about the terms?
Happ is one of the most business-savvy players in the game, especially when it comes to baseball, a union rep who defeated the Cubs in an arbitration hearing his first year of eligibility — the first player to beat the Cubs in more than 30 years.
If the Cubs want to talk about renewal, it probably won’t be done for a heavily discounted price.
And it may require some transparency and detail about what other Cubs players envision to join Happ in the next competitive core, and when — certainly a lot more transparency than Jed Hoyer has afforded fans.
“I think everything plays a part,” Happ said when asked if he needed any assurances about the competitive plan. “Everything comes into play. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an incredible place to play baseball day in and day out.”
Watching friends like Anthony Rizzo trade last year in that 20-hour purge of All-Stars, the core of the championship, only underscored the business side of a sport that more than the rest likes to hide behind a thick veil. of summer romance.
“You see both sides of it,” Happ said. “There’s an emotional part of being here, being with that group, those guys are your friends. And then there’s the business part, where there’s an opportunity to get other players back and help influence the organization. That’s why they do what they do.”
What they do next may have the most profound effect yet on how long it will take them to win their first post-season game since Happ’s rookie year.
Never mind the potentially profound effect on the last of those single-digit first-round picks by Theo Epstein’s front office that started with Albert Almora in 2012, Kris Bryant in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber in 2014.
“I love it here. I love playing here. I love the fan base. I love the city,” said Happ, who can only guess how the next few weeks (months?) will be for his team and his team. career will pass.
“It’s great to be able to play left field here every day and get in the middle of the order,” he said. “My focus is to keep doing that for as long as possible.”
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