Impact decision for Cubs: Embrace Ian or play Happ-less


ST. LOUIS — By the time the Cubs took the field for the final game of one of the franchise’s most bizarre seasons Sunday, only one man remained standing from the first lineup of the season.

The fact that it was Ian Happ would have defied anybody’s best guess, never mind logic, when the season began.

But no more than the fact that how tall he stands by this time next year might have more impact on how quickly the Cubs’ rebuild takes than anyone else currently in the organization — if he’s still around.

And that’s the thing about Happ.

One of the league's most volatile performers in recent years in terms of peaks and valleys, Happ seemed to be playing himself into a non-tender candidate by late-July — hitting .175 with a sub-.300 on-base percentage and .603 OPS, barely five months after beating the Cubs in arbitration to win a $4.1 million salary.

Since then, in his final 60 games, starting July 27, Happ hit .288 with a .938 OPS and 16 of his career-high 25 home runs — the final homer of his season coming in the ninth inning Saturday to beat the Cardinals.

“The numbers as a whole are not the most impressive I’ve ever put up,” he said of the .226 season (.323 on-base percentage, .757 OPS).

“But it certainly feels with that last two months and the kind of spot I was in at the end of July, early August, like one of the efforts in my career I’m most proud of.”

But now comes the hard part, the part that has proven most difficult in his career — and that will be more important than it ever has been for the Cubs: Keeping it up.

And that puts Happ’s career in exactly the same place as the Cubs’ front office at the conclusion of this season: at its most critical crossroads since it got to Chicago.

As the Cubs look ahead to their most uncertain winter in at least eight years, they have very little on their final 2021 roster to feel confident about becoming foundational parts of the next competitive core.

Patrick Wisdom and Frank Schwindel had terrific finishes after getting out-of-nowhere opportunities following the demolition of the last core at the trade deadline. But they’re both 30-ish rookies who carry more questions than answers into 2022.

All-Star catcher Willson Contreras will be back for at least the short term, pending a possible extension or trade. Kyle Hendricks has two more guaranteed years left on his contract.

RELATED: Contreras thought he would get traded at deadline

And then there is Happ, the No. 9 overall draft pick in 2015 who has shown tremendous glimpses of promise and just-as-tremendous lows since debuting in St. Louis in May 2017.

He’s a hard-working versatile fielder without an especially impressive glove at any one spot. And he’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate who sees a lot of pitches (arguably too many at times) that have combined to produce a career .805 OPS.

But he has yet to fulfill the promise of those glimpses for a full big-league season or even most of one, or come even close to smoothing out the streakiness.

And that’s the internal discussion that will be had before the Cubs decide what to do with the second-year arbitration-eligible Happ at the non-tender date, or after that when it’s time to file arbitration figures.

“I think Ian’s proven that there’s real big-league ability in there over a long period of time,” manager David Ross said before the Cubs beat the Cardinals 3-2 in Sunday’s rain-shortened finale in St. Louis. “The challenge for Ian is just can he be a little bit more consistent, which is the hardest part about being a major-leaguer. That’s not just Ian; that’s everybody.”

If Happ, who just turned 27, can take that final, big career step as he enters his traditional prime years, he might have a disproportionate impact on speeding up at least the hitting side of the Cubs’ rebuild.

If not, it leaves just one more big hole on the roster team president Jed Hoyer will have to fill after creating most of the other ones with July trades.

This two-month finishing kick to the season might have helped swing that decision in his favor for at least another show-me year for a team that has more payroll flexibility than it has had since the Theo Epstein-Jed Hoyer regime took office a decade ago this month.

And whether it was a coincidence that Happ’s 2021 surge began the week all the team’s highest profile veterans were traded away — a few days after Joc Pederson’s trade opened up more playing time — he found himself in a confident place by October as he starts looking forward.

“Just the way I worked through it, stayed positive and was able to finally get those results and set some new career highs in some places, that felt really good to me,” he said, “and to end in a place where I felt the at-bats were super competitive for 60 days and helped this offense get to a place where we were pretty dangerous for a while there.”

Happ talked about all the good players and good friends he watched get traded away and about taking “little victories” in moments that followed during a tough season — “because we don’t get to play this game for very long, and every year has a different story, and you really have to enjoy all the moments that you can.

“I really tried to take it in the last few days here and just be pretty positive about that experience,” he added.

Because he can’t know what comes next.

As the team’s union rep, he knows better than anyone else in the clubhouse how uncertain labor talks look as owners and players try to resolve big points of contention on a new collective bargaining agreement.

Not to mention a keen enough sense of the overall business of baseball to know how uncertain the winter might be for the team — and him.

“I think it’ll be a really interesting offseason from a bunch of different perspectives,” he said.

He talked about the expectations the last group of core players helped establish and the fan base “that’s eager and hungry for winning baseball all the time,” and how that gives him reason to think competitive baseball will return sooner rather than later at Wrigley Field.

But who will return in a Cubs uniform even next year? Who might be imported to the North Side?

Who will still be standing in that lineup this time next year?

“It’ll be really interesting just to see how things shake out,” Happ said.

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