Sunday, August 14, 2022

For Cubs, All-Star Ian Happ Is Ultimate Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

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The 2022 Cubs season is essentially over. The club is 19 games below .500, 15 games back in the division, and 13 back in the National League Wild Card play-in. That doesn’t mean that 2022 is a wasted season. It’s a transition year. The Cubs have a handful of young pitchers starting to look like keepers. Even after jettisoning former All-Stars Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, and Kris Bryant, the Cubs sent two position players to the All-Star Game. Catcher Willson Contreras will be the National League All-Star starter and is having his best year as a Cub. The only question remaining is if the Cubbies will extend him or if he’ll face the same fate as his 2016 World Series-winning teammates, going from fan favorite to another ball club at the trade deadline.



Contreras Not The Only All-Star That Could Be Moved

Willson Contreras isn’t the only Cubs All-Star. He’ll be joined on the National League All-Star team by teammate Ian Happ, making his first appearance at the midsummer classic. The former 1st round pick by the Cubs in 2015 out of Cincinnati (9th overall), Happ reached the majors in 2017, one year after the Cubs won the World Series for the first time in 108 years. Drafted as a second baseman, Happ was forced to the outfield for the reigning World Series champs. As a rookie, Happ swatted 24 home runs in 115 games, proving that he had major league power. But Happ’s second major league season was a step backward. His homers dropped to 15 while playing 27 more games than his rookie season. His average dropped to .233, and his strikeouts jumped to 167. In 2018, Happ struck out in more than 45% of his at-bats. Not good at all.

Happ’s Wake-Up Call

Happ’s sophomore slump led to him being left off the 2019 opening day roster. His demotion to AAA Iowa was a wake-up call that he heard loud and clear. After being called back to the Cubs later in 2019, Happ slugged 11 home runs in just 58 games. His .898 OPS (on-base plus slugging) set a new career high that holds to this day. It seemed like Happ had regained his confidence and stroke, making the case to be a pivotal contributor to the Cubs core looking to win another World Series.

Happ’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Routine

Happ carried over his strong 2019 run into the covid-abbreviated 2020 season. In 57 games, Happ hit 11 home runs, setting a new career high in on-base percentage, and was voted 18th in the MVP race. Heading into the 2021 season, Cubs Manager David Ross said that Happ “earned” the right to be the Cubs’ leadoff hitter. But as hot as Happ could get, his cold streaks were equally brutal. He got off to a horrific start to the 2021 season. By midseason, Happ was benched. Many Cubs fans began to wonder if it was time to move on from the streaky outfielder.

Cubs’ Purge Gives Happ Last Chance

The clock looked like it was up for the Cubs’ former 1st round pick. But then something shocking happened. The Cubs traded former MVP Kris Bryant and Gold Glove winning All-Stars Javy Baez and Anthony Rizzo, all within 24 hours. The rebuild officially began for the Cubs, but they had a season to finish. Happ was thrust back into the lineup and made the most of it. Happ finished last season with career-highs in home runs (25), hits, runs, and stolen bases. Heading into the 2022 season, the Cubs had seen Happ’s upside firsthand and, with two years of arbitration left until free agency, could roll the dice on their versatile yet streak switch-hitter.

Happ Named 2022 National League All-Star

For Happ to be named a National League All-Star reserve this week has to taste so sweet. In addition to his defensive versatility and switch-hitting bat, Happ ranks in the top-35 in Major League Baseball in OPS, ahead of guys like Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Kyle Schwarber (also an All-Star), Matt Olsen, Gleyber Torres, and George Springer. His 23 doubles rank 11th in all of baseball. After striking out more than 45% of the time in 2018, his rate is below 25%. With one more full season before free agency, think about how many contenders would like to add a switch-hitting, versatile defender that hits for power to all fields.

Will Happ Stay Or Will He Go?

For the Cubs, Happ’s value has never been higher. They have the chance to sell high on a historically streaky hitter. Every time the Cubs think that Happ has figured it out, he seems to regress. It would be hard to imagine the Cubs getting a Jose Quintana-esque return for Happ, two blue-chip prospects near major league ready, as starting pitchers have more value than outfielders. But with Happ under contract (arbitration) for the 2023 season, will a contender flip a top prospect or two to the Cubs in the hopes that Happ has finally figured it out. We’ll undoubtedly find out ahead of the August 2nd trade deadline

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