Happ fighting down stretch to stay in Cubs' plans, uniform


ST. LOUIS — It’s not just Kris Bryant and Javy Báez.

And it’s not just the trade deadline and free agency.

With last week’s trade of Joc Pederson, the clock began ticking louder on the Cubs futures of all but a few first- and second-year players and maybe Kyle Hendricks as the front office shines its brightest scrutiny in at least seven years on its roster.

Ian Happ knows what that means for him and these final 2 1/2 months of the season.

“I’ve been here for five years now. I’ve had a lot of success here,” Happ said during a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago — before coming off the bench for Kris Bryant (hamstring “fatigue") and eventually delivering the game-winning hit in Tuesday’s dramatic comeback.

“I don’t know exactly what their vision is, but I’d hope that I’m a pretty big part of that.”

Very few Cubs can be sure of that — regardless of the occasional two-run double in the ninth — as the newly promoted team president, Jed Hoyer, continues the cleanup and salvage project that Theo Epstein, a pandemic-spooked ownership and contract realities with core players dropped into his lap.

For Happ — a team union rep who knows the business of baseball as well as anyone in the Cubs’ clubhouse — that means trying to fight out of the longest-lasting slump of his career at what might be the worst possible moment for him to be mired in it.

For a team at its biggest competitive crossroads since before Happ was drafted ninth overall in 2015, that means decisions across the roster that will shape the look and duration of a process Hoyer refuses to call a “rebuild.”

Last winter, the Cubs non-tendered 2012 first-round draft pick Albert Almora Jr. and — in a move that would have looked shocking as recently as 2019 — non-tendered Kyle Schwarber, the No. 4 overall pick from 2014.

Happ then beat the Cubs in arbitration to win a $4.1 million salary this season — ahead of a season-long slump that looked a few points better, and felt to Happ even better than that, after the walk and double pushed his season numbers to .183 with a .624 OPS.

“It’s definitely one of the hardest stretches just mentally that I’ve had in my career,” Happ said. “That’s never something you want to go through, especially when the team’s struggling a little bit. You just want to help. That’s the struggle. That’s the tough part of it.”

If Tuesday’s unplanned playing time and windfall of results become the start of a strong finish, it could go a long way toward keeping him in the Cubs plans — and their uniform — into another transition season next year.

If not, he knows the possible Schwarber-like reality of that, too. 

“That exists in every single organization,” Happ said. ”It’s part of the game. It’s part of baseball. Part of our job that’s a little different is that that’s always there.

“It’s something that I think you try to just come out and play every day and compete and [then] that’s not something that is on the forefront.”

Happ is expected to be in the lineup for the first time in four games Wednesday, And it might take another big two-month finish like he had in 2019 to ease the individual uncertainty of the winter.

Happ, who was demoted to the minors out of spring training in 2019 before returning late to produce that finish, was in the National League MVP conversation six weeks into a nine-week pandemic season in 2020.

But after a two-homer game on Sept. 5 pushed his season numbers to .317 with a 1.113, he hit just .153 the final three weeks without a homer and with just two doubles.

That makes his 102-game total since that high-water mark: .176 with a .285 on-base percentage and .579 OPS.

“I’ve been grinding a lot this year and haven’t had a lot of moments like that,” he said after Tuesday’s win of the big hit to right off Cards closer Alex Reyes. “So to have one of those, to find that and feel that, that was really cool.”

The trade deadline is less than 10 days away, and anyone watching the Cubs Tuesday night who wasn’t aware how close it was, got a social-media blast of a reminder when Bryant left the game and speculation nearly broke Cubs’ Twitter until the Cubs announced the “fatigue” thing.

Whether Bryant is traded by then — or Báez or closer Craig Kimbrel or any of a half-dozen other likely suspects — what’s left for the Cubs after that is two months of auditions and scrutiny and a countdown to the end of the championship core.

Happ, who still has an above-average career OPS despite five seasons of hot streaks and deep slumps, was the fifth of five consecutive single-digit, first-round draft picks of the Cubs during the down years and tanking that helped seed the six-year run of winning seasons through last year.

The Cubs got a championship the year before Happ debuted in St. Louis in 2017 and five total playoff appearances out of that group.

It’s a run of team success among teams that have had similar five-year runs of such high drafting that rivals even the Astros — whose five single-digit picks from 2012 through 2015 include All-Stars Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman but also historic No. 1-overall bust Mark Appel.

The Pirates, who had single-digit picks every year from 2006 through 2013, don’t come close.

The fact that all five key Cubs picks in that stretch are in jeopardy of being gone by next season underscores just how different the next core might look — and how quickly it might get there.

Almora and Schwarber already are gone. Bryant and Báez are eligible for free agency after this season, even if they aren’t traded.

And Happ.

“It’ll be interesting to see where things lie moving forward,” Happ said. “But I think everyone’s just out here trying to compete and enjoy the time.”

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