How Cubs envision Ian Happ fitting into the puzzle moving forward


MILWAUKEE — As Ian Happ put the finishing touches on his pregame routine and grabbed his gear to head back into the clubhouse Friday afternoon, a Cubs fan hanging out behind the third-base dugout at Miller Park shouted, "Welcome back, Ian! We love you!"

Roughly 45 minutes later, Happ made a nice sliding catch down the left-field line to rob Mike Moustakas of a hit and ending the first inning for Kyle Hendricks.

It was Happ's first start in the big leagues since Sept. 29 of last season, as he has spent all of this year in Triple-A Iowa working on making adjustments offensively and defensively. 

After he was demoted in the final week of spring training, Happ struggled initially in the minor leagues and he didn't start seeing the fruits of his labor until earlier this month. From July 2 on, he hit .348/.477/.652 (1.129 OPS) with nearly as many walks (17) as strikeouts (18) to go along with 5 homers and 12 RBI in 19 games.

It was that extended stretch of quality play that helped convince the Cubs he was ready to be recalled to the big leagues. For his part, Happ felt like he was finally getting a solid approach through every game, putting together three or four or five really good plate appearances each contest instead of giving away an at-bat here or there.

The Cubs also loved his attitude throughout the whole process.

"I think Ian had really started to put a lot of things together at the same time," Theo Epstein said Friday evening. "First of all, I want to praise him for his attitude. Obviously, it was a very rough stretch there towards the end of spring training at the beginning of the year, understandably. But he has been a team-first player in Triple-A. He's been working extremely hard; he's been very accountable. 

"He's been a really upstanding member of the organization while in a difficult circumstance in Triple-A that could become purgatory — and not a pleasant one — for a lot of guys in similar circumstances and he just kept his nose down and really worked hard. I'm proud of the way he represented himself and handled this whole thing and it's been a productive time for him."

Beyond the recent results, the Cubs also liked the way Happ was making the necessary adjustments, especially during the course of an at-bat.

He still struck out 113 times in 99 minor-league games, but only 18 whiffs in his last 19 games and 2 in his final six contests before the promotion. 

"I think the first thing to really come around early was his two-strike approach," Epstein said. "In the first part of the season, once he got his head around being in Triple-A, [he was] getting the work in. And then it was the matter of trying to maintain that while also getting back to being aggressive on his pitch and hitting the ball hard, hitting the ball hard in the air. 

"His right-handed swing came around before his left-handed swing did. There was some give-and-take where he'd improve in some areas and then understandably suffer regression in other areas. For about the last month and really the last few weeks, he's been able to put a well-rounded offensive package together on a pretty consistent basis — game-to-game, at-bat-to-at-bat. And that's what we've been looking for. 

"The guys working with him day-to-day and those evaluating him in person and on video from afar, everybody agrees — this is the best he's looked all year."

So where can Happ fit with the Cubs moving forward? 

Friday, it was playing left field and hitting sixth against Gio Gonzalez as the Cubs try to find some way to combat their struggles against lefties. 

The Cubs are 9-13 against left-handed starters and ranked in the bottom half of the league in most offensive categories vs. southpaws.

During his stint in the minors, Happ hit .272 with an .846 OPS against lefties, though his numbers in his big-league career aren't quite as promising (.239 AVG, .698 OPS vs. LHP).

At the very least, the Cubs hope Happ can provide a bit of a lift offensively and some versatility defensively as they are in the midst of a stretch of nine straight games against the top two challengers in the NL Central (Brewers, Cardinals).

"He's checked off a lot of the boxes and it's the appropriate time," Epstein said. "I also think he can help. Our production against left-handed pitching hasn't been what we expected it to be coming into the year. He's been pretty good with his right-handed swing for most of the year.

"And then our center field production and even our second base production hasn't been what we've hoped for and he can play those positions, so it seemed like the right time to embrace another opportunity for him up here."

As Epstein stated, the Cubs rank 22nd in baseball in OPS from their centerfielders, due in large part to Albert Almora Jr.'s struggles. They also rank 17 in OPS from the second-base position, but it's unclear if Happ will get much of a chance there.

Joe Maddon said he plans to use Happ primarily in center field and left field, but the infield was certainly a topic of discussion when he welcomed Happ back into the big-league clubhouse Friday afternoon.

"He asked a good question — he wanted to know, game-in-progress, 'would you ever put me in the infield?'" Maddon said. "I said, 'I don't know that, but with five bench players right now, maybe not out of the chute. But like I also told him, if you're losing the game and you're trying to win the game, you'll do anything."

Maddon felt it was a good meeting with Happ and likes the way the 24-year-old has been looking on the infield in the minor leagues (he played 134.2 innings at second base with Iowa).

As for rejoining the clubhouse, that process was seamless for Happ, who greeted each of his teammates with a big hug and smile. After all, he spent most of the last two seasons with these guys, playing 257 games at the big-league level in that time.

After dealing with the intial frustration and negative emotions that came with the demotion, Happ returned with a positive attitude and understood he had some room to grow in his game earlier this year.

"I thought he looked refreshed," Maddon said. "Absolutely, sincerely ready to go. No holding of grudges or ill feelings at all. Looks like he did it the right way, so I'm eager to see how it plays out."

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