Ian Happ knows 2018 is going to be different than 2017. That's why he's hoping it's the same.
Happ will be a big leaguer from Day 1 this season, the obvious biggest difference as he's prepared for the upcoming campaign. Happ didn't make his major league debut until May 13 last year, though he did so with a bang, homering in his first game against the St. Louis Cardinals. He burst onto the scene with a .357/.455/.786 slash line and seven extra-base hits in his first eight games.
But that was all part of proving he belonged at the major league level, something he won't have to worry about now that the calendar has turned.
After slashing .253/.328/.514 and belting 24 homers in his rookie season — one behind the 25 Billy Williams hit in his rookie season and two off the 26 Kris Bryant sent out in his rookie year — Happ's spot is safe, and that made for an entirely different offseason for the 23-year-old former Cincinnati Bearcat.
"Definitely a different offseason for me, just going through the process, getting ready to go to spring training, getting ready for the season instead of getting ready to compete and try to prove that I can be on the team," he said during the Cubs Convention earlier this month at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. "For me, definitely a more relaxed offseason.
"This offseason, just getting in good shape, trying to get ready to really enjoy spring training and mesh with these guys and see how much I can learn again. For me, going into the year, just want to help the team any way I can, same thing as last year, being as versatile as possible."
And so in the different comes hope for the same for Happ, who wants to again show the versatility that resulted in him playing five different positions in 2017.
The rookie became yet another utility man on Joe Maddon's roster full of those kinds of players. The mix-and-match manager values versatility in the field as much as anything, and he took full advantage with Happ, who played 54 games in center field, 44 at second base, 29 in left field, 14 in right field and even four at third base.
The roster, at least from a position-player standpoint, looks much the same as it did in 2017. And coming off a third straight trip to the penultimate round of baseball's postseason — and the World Series hangover that defined the first half of last season — Maddon will surely look to give his players rest where he can. Being able to plug in Happ all over the field helps in that effort.
Happ has actually been an oft-mentioned name this offseason, and not necessarily for what folks are expecting from him in 2018 and beyond. Instead, Happ has been a frequent subject of trade speculation. As of this writing, the Cubs have yet to acquire a top-of-the-line starting pitcher to replace Jake Arrieta, and the suggestion that a young position player — be it Happ, Kyle Schwarber, Javy Baez or Addison Russell — could be moved for a pitcher has been common.
Unsurprisingly, none of that chatter has affected Happ and he's ready to go with the rest of the Cubs' current roster.
"All of the media speculation, it's part of the deal, it's part of the gig," Happ said. "For me, I'm excited with the guys we've brought in and excited for what they'll put on the field this year."
But whether it's part of his motivation or not, if 2017's performance proved that Happ belonged at the big league level, then what he does in 2018 could go a long way in proving to outsiders that he belongs in the "untouchable" category and nowhere near future trade speculation.