Cubs

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

How Ian Happ is driven to win the next World Series with Cubs

Hours after the Cubs won the World Series, Ian Happ went to work at the team’s sprawling Arizona complex, meeting minor-league hitting coordinator Andy Haines at a batting cage that November morning.

Surrounded by Cubs fans the night before, Haines had watched the epic Game 7 with Double-A Tennessee hitting coach Jacob Cruz at Culinary Dropout, a Tempe restaurant, the TV audience multiplying to around 40 million viewers. Together, they saw the organization’s first-round picks from 2014 (Kyle Schwarber) and 2013 (Kris Bryant) jumpstart the 10th-inning rally that would beat the Cleveland Indians and end the 108-year championship drought.    

Around 7:30 a.m. – while the Cubs were just beginning a World Series hangover that would last for most of this season – Happ and Haines talked about getting ready to win the next one and began early hitting before the Arizona Fall League action that afternoon.

Happ – the ninth overall pick from the 2015 draft – is so driven to make it in The Show and focused on earning a ring that he doesn’t need to see the symbolism in that moment.

“That’s my goal,” Happ said. “It just happened to be the time that we were there.”

In terms of timing, yes, Happ missed the unbelievable ride last October, seeing Schwarber up close while he trained briefly in Arizona before his dramatic, post-knee surgery World Series return and getting glimpses of playoff games on an iPad in the dugout in between innings with the Mesa Solar Sox.

But Happ maximized his opportunity in the middle of May when the Cubs dealt with the types of injuries that would contribute to their first-half funk, promoting him after only 26 games at Triple-A Iowa. Happ made his big-league debut against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium, launched a two-run homer 413 feet off Carlos Martinez and never went back to Des Moines.  

What the Cubs initially framed as a temporary solution became a key piece to the 92-win team that is about to face the Washington Nationals in a best-of-five National League Division Series.   

“Right away,” general manager Jed Hoyer said, starting in spring training, “the veteran guys really gravitated towards him. They loved the way he worked. They loved his intensity. It’s just a really serious demeanor. He fit right in with this group immediately. He had zero assimilation process, just because of the way he carries himself and the way he takes everything so seriously.”   

During three years at the University of Cincinnati, Happ made the dean’s list five times and earned a 3.68 grade-point average as a finance major. Happ’s father, Keith, a longtime U.S. Golf Association agronomist, died of brain cancer two years ago. Happ’s mother, Mary Beth, is a Ph.D-level dean/professor at Ohio State University’s College of Nursing.

[MORE: Jon Lester not conceding anything: 'We should win the World Series']

Except for the occasional faux TV interview in the dugout, Happ maintains the same game face. He plays with an edge, internalizing the idea that the Cubs drafted him because he would be on a faster track as a college hitter and could be marketed in a deal for pitching later.

The Cubs never traded Happ for a Jose Quintana or a Sonny Gray as manager Joe Maddon started him at second base, third base and all three positions across the outfield. Happ became the fastest player in franchise history to 20 home runs (89 games) and his 24 homers are the second-most all-time by a switch-hitting NL rookie (Pittsburgh Pirates slugger Josh Bell put up 26 this season). Of Happ’s 68 RBI, 30 came with two outs. Of Happ’s 92 hits, 44 went for extra bases.

“He’s right in Joe’s wheelhouse,” Haines said. “He plays multiple positions. He can do a little bit of everything. He’s competitive. Winning is really, really important to him.”

So even if Happ’s name isn’t in Friday night’s Game 1 lineup at Nationals Park, there will be ways for him to impact not only this series, but make his mark in the playoffs as the Cubs try to become a dynasty.

“I think this team is going to be good for a long time,” Happ said in spring training. “It’s nice to be part of an organization that doesn’t feel like it’s a one-and-done situation. It feels like they’re building something here. And you’re going to have a chance to play for the pennant, for the World Series, for years to come.”

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Albert Almora's strong connection to Team USA baseball

Who was Theo Epstein’s first draft pick with the Cubs?

The answer to that trivia question will always and forever be Albert Almora Jr. picked sixth overall in the 2012 amateur draft.

In some ways, the young outfielder from Florida became the forgotten man in the stable of can’t-miss prospects that Epstein and top lieutenants Jed Hoyer and Jason MacLeod amassed since their arrival over six years ago. While players such as Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Ian Happ zoomed through the minor leagues on their way to the majors, Almora took a different path – one that included seven different stops over parts of five developmental seasons before he broke into the big leagues during the 2016 season.

But Almora’s road to the majors began years before he was selected by the Cubs, when he began playing for Team USA as a 13-year-old. Over the next several years, Almora played for the Red, White & Blue seven times, his final appearance coming in 2015. The seven appearances are the most in the history of USA Baseball, and Almora recognizes the impact his time with the national squad had on his playing career.

“[It was] one of the best experiences of my life," he said. "Every year I had something special to play with, unbelievable guys, went to crazy places, and out of those six years, five of them came with a gold medal so that was pretty special as well. Also, that helped me in my baseball life, how to experience things and learn from those type of experiences.

“I’m a Cubbie and that’s what’s on my chest right now, but Team USA will always have a special place in my heart.”

While Almora carries those national team experiences with him every day, his main focus coming into the 2018 season is becoming a consistent difference-maker. Almora made only 65 starts during the 2017 campaign, and 63 percent of his at-bats last year came against left-handed pitching, against which he hit a robust .342. That led to a platoon role in a crowded outfield, with Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber, Jon Jay, Ian Happ and Ben Zobrist all taking turns on the merry-go-round. But with the departure of Jay, Almora believes his time is near.

“I have the most confidence in myself that I can play every day, but I try not to think about that kind of stuff because it’s out of my control," Almora said. "All I control is like last year what I did; whenever I was given an opportunity, I tried to do my best and help the team win.”

Almora’s ultimate role on the 2018 Cubs remains to be seen, but there’s no question that Theo’s first Cubs pick will earn whatever role he ends up with, and the foundation of Almora’s journey to Clark and Addison was laid many summers ago during his time with Team USA.

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

Willson Contreras willing to pay the price for mound visits

News broke to Willson Contreras that the league will be limiting mound visits this upcoming season, and the Cubs catcher —notorious for his frequent visits to the rubber — is not having it.

“I’ve been reading a lot about this rule, and I don’t really care. If you have to go again and pay the price for my team, I will," he said.

The new rules rolled out Tuesday will limit six visits —any time a manager, coach or player visits the mound — per nine innings. But, communication between a player and a pitcher that does not require them moving from their position does not count as a visit.When a team is out of visits, it's the umpire's discretion to allow an extra trip to the mound.

But despite the new rules, Contreras is willing to do what's best for the team.

“There’s six mound visits, but what if you have a tight game? They cannot say anything about that. If you’re going to fine me about the [seventh] mound visit, I’ll pay the price.”