Today we conclude our tour of the fifteen best prospects in the Chicago Cubs farm system, with the top overall prospect on the north side of Chicago, Ian Happ.
The 2015 MLB Draft was a turning point for the Chicago Cubs. In recent years, they’d continually taken skilled college bats in the first round (Almora, Bryant, Schwarber) so that they could compete, but, by that time, the plan had begun to work – they were actually competing. They were in desperate need of young and talented pitching, but their love for advanced hitters was no secret. It wasn’t really a surprise that they took a position player at ninth overall, but the specific player they drafted, Ian Happ, was however.
Similarly to the Cubs’ selection of Kyle Schwarber at fourth overall in 2014, the Happ pick was considered a reach and caused confusion. Why wouldn’t Theo just draft a pitcher? Why take a guy who was projected to be selected near the end of the first round, in the top 10?
The Cubs’ front office clearly saw something in the switch-hitter that nobody else did.
Happ’s credentials were undoubtedly impressive. As a junior in 2015 at the University of Cincinnati, Happ hit .369 and amassed all kinds of awards. D1Baseball.com named him to their First Team All-American, Baseball America and College Sports Madness each had him on their respective Second Team All-American, and he was named American Athletic Conference Player of the Year, among countless other accolades.
Since his immersement into the minor leagues, Happ has proven himself worthy. While he hasn’t developed quite as fast as other first-rounders (like Carson Fulmer of the White Sox), he’s shown that he belongs in baseball.
He started his minor league career at Low-A Eugene, where he raised eyebrows, slashing .283/.408/.491. This performance, combined with his age and potential, earned him a late-season promotion to Single-A South Bend, but he fizzled in the new environment. He hit only .241/.315/.448 in 38 games there, but the rough ending didn’t discourage the Cubs.
They decided to place Happ at A-Advanced Myrtle Beach in 2016, and he continued his previous success. His .296/.410/.475 line was enough for yet another promotion, this time to Double-A Tennessee, where he didn’t excel as he had previously, but remained a solid hitting contributor, ending with a line of .262/.318/.415.
Happ’s never struggled offensively and has underrated power. In just a year and a half of pro ball, he’s hit 24 homers and he led his conference in his final year of college in slugging percentage. His ability to swing from both sides of the plate increases his value even more, and that’s not even mentioning his speed; he’s swiped 26 bags since he was drafted.
While Happ remains a force to be reckoned with on offense, his defense continues to be his Achilles Heel. He’s considered a utility man, but that’s only because he hasn’t shown explicit prowess at any one position. In contrast to guys like Ben Zobrist who are considered utility players because they can play any defensive position well, Happ is considered to be a utility guy because he can’t. Most baseball executives believe he’ll end up in left field, but the Cubs and their developers hold out hope that he can get used to playing in the infield, most likely at second base.
On any other team in the big leagues, Happ would have a clear shot at the MLB roster. Unfortunately, he’s on the Cubs, the team with the most stacked list of position players in existence. His defensive liabilities are now becoming increasingly important as his offensive ability is matched by his fellow north side teammates. He’s clearly blocked, which turns everyone’s attention to the possibility of a trade. Earlier this winter in my bold predictions article, I claimed that Happ will be traded at some point in 2017, and, while that was a very bold prediction, I can still see it HAPP-ening (HaHaHa). His value as a hitter and as a base runner is far too great to go unnoticed, and, given the Cubs’ constant need for pitching depth, it makes a whole lot of sense to give Happ an opportunity on a different team.
While he’s officially ranked number one here at The Loop Sports, he won’t be for long. Eloy Jimenez has passed Happ on every single prospect ranking list for 2017. Does this mean Happ isn’t good? Of course not. The demotion is because of Jimenez’s improvement, not because Happ is getting worse. He may not be number one, but he’s certainly a close second. As he’s getting very close to the majors (he’ll spend the 2017 season at Double-A or Triple-A and you’ll definitely see him by the end of 2018), he’s going to make a huge impact on the Cubs, there’s no doubt; the question is how? Will he make it as an infielder? Will his bat force the front office to keep him on the major league team? Will he be traded for an elite pitcher? Only time will tell. But until one of those things takes place, Happ will remain an extremely skilled player soon to see major-league playing time.