Why Happ's next few months might indicate Cubs' timeline


ST. LOUIS — He wants to stay long-term. He might be gone by the end of next month.

And if he’s still around by the end of the season, it merely earns Ian Happ a place in the same untethered orbit occupied these past two seasons by All-Star friends and teammates — as a short-term asset with trade value on a team nowhere close to contending.

So keep an eye on Happ if you’ve been scratching your head trying to decipher what team president Jed Hoyer’s plan (never mind timeline) is for his stripped-down roster.

Because one of the biggest indicators in the next few months of the Cubs’ direction is the man on deck behind Willson Contreras.

“Obviously, that would be my hope that I would be able to continue here and be with the group long-term and be able to build something really special here,” Happ said before doubling home a run in Friday night’s 3-0 victory over the Cardinals.

“That’s about as much as you have, is your hope.”

The Cubs have not approached Happ to talk about an extension, nor does he expect them to do so during the season.

Hoyer has trades to make before the Aug. 2 deadline, before making that decision on Happ — All-Star catcher Contreras and high-performing closer David Robertson foremost among the inevitable departures.

And Happ could join them, considering the rise in his trade value as he puts up All-Star-caliber numbers from the No. 3 spot in the order, with an additional year of club control after this one to dangle in front of potential suitors.

Don’t think the White Sox could use a productive switch-hitter with power who has become an above-average defender in the outfield?

“You just never know if any of that’s real; as players you just don’t know,” Happ said. “There’s always speculation. But you don’t have the ability to see behind the curtain and know what’s going on.”

And, besides, he said, “You can’t control if you get traded, can’t control if you get an offer to get extended. So you just go and play every day.”

Happ, 27, might be the enigma on the roster for Hoyer and his front office team, especially when it comes to their approach post-Aug. 2 if they choose not to trade him.

A ninth overall draft pick, Happ debuted in rivalry-hot St. Louis six weeks into the Cubs’ championship-defense season in 2017 and hit the first of 24 home runs in 413 plate appearances that season.

He’s a switch-hitter with power from both sides of the plate and a career OPS over .800 (115 OPS+) but hasn’t made an All-Star team, largely because of an exceptionally streaky career track record (and the fact there was no All-Star game during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season).

He has been almost too patient for long stretches during his career, drawing walks, but striking out a lot and struggling much of his career from the right side. In 2019 he was sent back to the minors for the first few months of the season before returning and finishing strong. A year ago he was mired in the deepest slump of his career, looking more like a non-tender candidate by August than a part of the Cubs’ long-term plans.

Since then, in 126 games (457 PAs) from Aug. 3, he’s hitting .291 with 23 home runs, 76 RBIs and a .906 OPS — the longest stretch of consistent, sustained production of his career.

His strikeout rate is way down; his numbers from the right side, way up since making adjustments and earning regular playing time against left-handers.

And he has the overall look of a player who has himself — if not his future — figured out.

“He just looks like he’s more athletic, getting better jumps,” manager David Ross said of Happ’s improved play in left field. “And he’s held down the middle of our order when we’ve lacked some of that consistency in the middle.

“He’s definitely been one of our All-Stars for sure. Him and Willson.”

So what if he earns a bid this year, and sticks around for decision time in the offseason?

Is he a cornerstone for Hoyer’s “next great Cubs team”? Or the next big rent-a-player trade chip from Hoyer’s homegrown core?

To say this is a crossroads winter approaching for whatever Hoyer’s timeline becomes is probably an understatement.

It might be the pivot point for a process that starts to turn in the right direction or gets delayed by years — especially considering it’s almost impossible to identify with confidence anyone on the current roster who will be on the Cubs’ next playoff roster. (Seiya Suzuki? Justin Steele? Nico Hoerner? Are you sure?)

And this: If Hoyer, general manager Carter Hawkins and their computer data say locking up Happ is the right move, what does Happ have to say about the terms?

Happ is among the most business-astute players in the game, especially when it comes to the business of baseball, a union rep who beat the Cubs in an arbitration hearing his first year of eligibility — the first player to beat the Cubs in more than 30 years.

If the Cubs want to talk extension, it’s not likely to get done for some steeply discounted price.

And it may require some transparency, and specifics, about what other players the Cubs envision joining Happ in the next competitive core, and when — certainly a lot more transparency than Jed Hoyer has offered fans.

“I think everything factors in,” Happ said when asked if he would need some assurances about the competitive plan. “Everything factors in. But it doesn’t change the fact that it’s an incredible place to play baseball day in and day out.”

Watching friends such as Anthony Rizzo get traded off in that 20-hour purge of championship-core All-Stars last year only underscored the business side of a sport that more than the rest likes to hide behind a thick veil of summer-warmed romance.

“You see both sides of it,” Happ said. “There’s an emotional part of being here, being with that group, those guys being your friends. And then there’s the business part of it, where there’s a chance to get other players back and help impact the organization. That’s why they do what they do.”

What they do next might have the most profound effect yet on how long it’ll be before they win their first postseason game since Happ’s rookie year.

Never mind the potentially profound effect on the last of those single-digit first round picks by Theo Epstein’s front office that began with Albert Almora in 2012, Kris Bryant in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber in 2014.

“I love it here. I love playing here. I love the fan base. I love the city,” said Happ, who can only guess how the next few weeks (months?) might play out for his team and his career.

“Being able to play left field here every day and hit in the middle of the order is something that has been awesome,” he said. “My focus is continuing to do that for as long as I possibly can.”

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