Three Possible Paths to Walk: The Cubs and Ian Happ are at a Crossroads

Ian Happ by Rich Biesterfeld (@Biest22)

Ian Happ is a lightning rod for discourse on Cubs Twitter. The 27-year-old has always been a polarizing prospect. After being drafted 9th out of the University of Cincinnati, Happ endured emotional turmoils but still managed to produce a .272/.362/.452 (131 wRC+; 31% above league-average production) with a 22.7 K% across two minor league seasons before entering the 2017 season ranked as MLB Pipeline’s 28th overall prospect. Despite the on-field success, publications frequently mentioned Happ as a trade chip ($) for a team in the middle of its contention window. 

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Happ wasn’t traded and, instead, served as an offensive catalyst for the 2017 club by slashing .253/.328/.514 with 24 home runs and a 1.9 fWAR. His 31.2% strikeout rate was concerning, but optimists viewed that as an area he could improve with more major league reps. He entered 2018 as the leadoff hitter, but it wasn’t long before those strikeouts only intensified (36.1% in 2018). In a surprise move, the Cubs demoted Happ during the 2019 spring training. He slowly made improvements. Over 387 plate appearances in 2019 and 2020, Happ fully realized his potential. His .260/.350/.530 slash line with a manageable 26.4 K% and outstanding 130 wRC+ landed the centerfielder squarely in the Cubs’ plans. The Cubs had found their future centerfielder and leadoff man.

Now that future role is uncertain at best. From the start of the 2021 season to July 25th, Happ produced a ghastly .175/.286/.315 slash line with a .272 weighted OBA and 69 wRC+. He, surprisingly, cut down on his strikeouts (28.4%), but Happ was a man caught in between. And his platoon splits only intensified (51 wRC+ against LHP) for the switch hitter across that period prompting calls for Happ to give up switch-hitting. At that point, moving on from the 27-year-old appeared to be the obvious choice. Since July 26th (exactly one month ago), Happ caught fire. 

Happ is producing, including last night’s game-tying home run. Happ’s last month is a quality .258/.343/.516 line with an outstanding 130 wRC+. His strikeout rate is back up to 34.3%. His production is remarkably similar to (and in some ways better than) his career numbers before 2021 (.248/.344/.481 with a 31.5 K% and 116 wRC+).

The choice becomes much more complicated, and it appears the Cubs are left with three options:

  1. Hold on to Happ for 2022
  2. DFA Happ
  3. Trade Happ this offseason

Let’s explore each of these options below

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Retain Ian Happ for 2022

Ian Happ is polarizing. For as many fans ready to move on, a large contingent views the young outfielder as a player worthy of one more chance. Fans point to the career 109 wRC+ and his breakout 2019 and 2020 numbers. Still more see the impact that Happ brings to the community. Others view 2022 as a transition year and would hate to sell low on a player who could bring far more value on the field or in a trade if he were to rebound. While his offensive production slipped during the bulk of 2021, Happ still has believers.

Designate Ian Happ for assignment

Regardless of Happ’s production, his offensive profile leaves many fans with a sour taste in their mouths. There is a large contingent of the fanbase who are willing to move on from the outfielder. They view the last month as nothing more than a hot streak in a small sample size. He is striking out as much as he ever has, and his overall season numbers still leave nothing to be desired. Due to Rafael Ortega’s emergence, Happ is playing more in the outfield corners than centerfield. In this group of opinions, it’s hard to see the Cubs bringing anything back in a trade, so why should the Cubs give Happ playing time at the expense of another player who could be a long-term answer in the outfield.

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Trade Ian Happ this offseason

The last camp is the most divisive, which is to continue to play him, hoping that you could trade him this offseason. I won’t pretend that trading Happ (even with a solid finish to the 2021 season) brings back impact players. But is it possible to both maximize playing time for hopeful future contributors like Ortega, Hermosillo, and Wisdom by moving Happ around the diamond while also agreeing he doesn’t fit the organization’s future plans? I would argue that it is, and Happ can bring back talent to the organization via trade. It may seem farfetched, but the Red Sox faced a similar conundrum with Andrew Benintendi the last offseason. 

Benintendi was widely rumored to be near the top of the Cubs draft wish list in 2015. However, the Red Sox nabbed Benintendi two picks ahead of the Cubs before selecting Ian Happ out of Cincinnati. Despite a 4.4 fWAR 2018 season, Benintendi only produced a .260/.307/.410 line for a 94 wRC+ in his major league career before last offseason’s trade. Injuries certainly contributed to his downturn, but Benintendi didn’t show offensive power or defense in centerfield. With rising salaries due to the arbitration process and two years of control remaining, the Red Sox fielded offers and found teams were willing to gamble on a former top-10 overall pick. 

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In a complicated 3-team trade with the Royals and the Mets, the Red Sox traded Benintendi and received five players back: Franchy CorderoJosh Winckowski (Mets), Freddy Valdez (Mets), Luis De La Rosa, and Grant Gambrell (Royals). Cordero didn’t work out for the Red Sox. Still, according to MLB Pipeline, Winckowski slots in as the 19th best prospect in Boston’s system. Both Valdez and De La Rosa are young players having success in the Florida Complex League. The Red Sox turned Benintendi into a Top 20 system prospect and a handful of lottery tickets.

Where do you land? 

Published by

Greg Zumach

Following the Cubs minor leagues and the MLB draft has been my passion since I became a fan. I try to focus on deeper dives into players along with MLB Draft content throughout the year.

2 thoughts on “Three Possible Paths to Walk: The Cubs and Ian Happ are at a Crossroads

  1. I think they should keep Happ. He has no trade value right now. Also, his strikeouts are only a big issue in a lineup full of strikeout artists, and unlike Baez, Happ will take a walk. If he performs well enough the rest of 2021 and the first half of 2022, trading him could be revisited then, but maybe they wouldn’t want to. The next core will need some veteran leadership. Maybe he is that guy, warts and all

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  2. I’ll also say something about Happ’s slash line. If Schwarber had slashed .260/.350/.530, he’d still be a Cub. If Baez had done that, he’d be a better bet to get that $200M contract.

    Maybe in 2022, the best thing the Cubs could do is hit Happ 4th and put their 3 best on base players in front of him.

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