Addison Russell

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

A little bit of Backup Quarterback Syndrome surrounds the Cubs right now.

Just like with the Bears when the starting quarterback isn't playing well, the backup QB often becomes the most popular guy in town.

So with Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Carlos Gonzalez struggling of late, many fans are wondering where Ian Happ is and why the Cubs haven't called him back up from Triple-A Iowa.

That quartet of players is slashing a combined .180/.269/.245 (.514 OPS) in June with a 28 percent strikeout rate and only 2 homers and 12 RBI over 160 plate appearances. 

But the Cubs didn't send Happ down to the minors because of Almora, Descalso or even Russell. The organization felt he needed to make some adjustments with his swing and offensive approach — namely from the left side of the plate. 

In a perfect scenario, Happ would cut down on strikeouts without losing any of the power that has led him to hit 39 homers in 751 at-bats during his first two big-league seasons. 

However, it hasn't quite worked out that way, as the 24-year-old switch-hitter is hitting just .225 with a .347 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage in 72 games for Iowa. He does have 45 walks, but also 85 strikeouts and only 23 extra-base hits (11 homers). 

Even more concerning is much of that damage has come from the right side of the plate (.803 OPS, 4 homers) while he's struggled as a left-handed batter (.207 AVG, .721 OPS, only 7 HRs in 169 at-bats).

Happ's progress also hasn't exactly been linear. His OPS by month:

April: .741
May: .806
June: .667

"I think from a development stage, it's good," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "He's been swinging the bat well from the right side. Still working on things from the left side that he's been working on since spring training. But the attitude is fantastic. He's working hard. 

"It just feels like a matter of time until he goes on a run and gets back to where he was before. We're kinda waiting on that a little bit — he's waiting on that. But given the work he's done and where he is mentally, I think that's just a matter of time."

Iowa manager Marty Pevey raved about Happ's work ethic and attitude, but also acknowledged that it hasn't yet clicked for the young switch-hitter and that can be frustrating and difficult to maintain the right mental approach.

Happ admitted that frustration — especially early on — in a conversation with The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma last week

But those around Happ in the Cubs organization haven't lost any faith in him.

"He's 24 years old," Pevey said. "He would almost be the youngest guy on the big-league team still. ... He's got so much talent. When the light comes back on for him and stays on, he's gonna be able to help the big club for a long, long time."

In spring training, the plan was for Happ to play both second base and outfield. But that was before he was demoted, of course.

As he works on his swing, Happ hasn't played second base with Iowa since June 1 and has only started 8 games on the infield this season, spending almost all his time in center field. 

"I think the biggest thing there is we just want him to get his at-bats and not worry about the defensive side of things," Joe Maddon said. "I think that's pretty much it. He can still come in and play second base, but moving it forward, if you could really nail down that swing from the left side and be pertinent in the outfield, that would be the first priority."

Regardless of how those on big-league club is playing or what the roster situation might be, the Cubs are committed to Happ's development and don't want to rush him. 

"The situation with Ian, you really want to make sure that you feel good about that," Maddon said earlier this month. "You don't want to just [call him up] because you think you have to do something like that. You got a young player, still learning his craft and getting better at what he's doing. 

"So you don't want to pull the plug. It's not an experiment, it's a developmental situation — so make sure that that is in place before you actually do bring him back. That's why you sent him there in the first place."

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote's neverending game of chess

David Bote feels like he's in a neverending game of chess.

He's been so ingrained in the Cubs conversation the last two years that it's easy to forget this is his first full big-league season and he's still learning the ropes.

Bote is now nationally known thanks to the ultimate grand slam he hit last August, but he's not hanging his hat on that one accomplishment and has found a way to conjure up some staying power in the majors. He's a former 18th-round draft pick who never found his name on top prospect lists, yet signed a five-year, $15 million extension before even playing his first home game in 2019.

But Bote won't rest on his laurels with that contract extension, either. He knows he's in store for a constant battle.

"It's never ending," Bote said. "[The league] points out something that you do and you make an adjustment off it and then they make another adjustment off of you. It's just trying to stay with what you want to do and also try to stay in front of what they're trying to do at the same time."

Much like he did last year, Bote got out to a hot start this season but then eventually hit a rough pitch. 

After he had a tough series in Cincinnati in mid-May (he went 0-for-8 with 6 strikeouts), he found himself on the bench for back-to-back games while his season average dipped to .239 and OPS fell to .713.

But then he got the start at third base in Washington on May 18, hit a homer and hasn't looked back since.

From that game on, Bote has a 1.027 OPS while slashing .324/.378/.649 with 6 homers and 18 RBI in 19 starts.

The 26-year-old infielder has earned more playing time with his production, taking advantage of the respective offensive slumps from Addison Russell and Daniel Descalso. As the Cubs faced a tough righty in Lucas Giolito Wednesday night, it was Bote who found his name at second base and he responded with a homer off the American league ERA leader.

"He started out well, then he hit a little bit of a skid, which was good because he had some problems at the major-league level early in the season and he's overcome that already," Joe Maddon said earlier this month. "So you need to go through that adversity, too. My goodness, David's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a team-oriented player. 

"He's like any other young player — he's still working to really understand what's going on every day and understanding himself. But he does it in a very mature way. He's gonna keep getting better because he listens well, and I think he's getting to the point where he understands his strengths, which is really important. Just watch him — he's gonna continue to get better."

Bote doesn't feel like the neverending game of chess gets any easier, but at least now, he has a checklist he can go through to evaluate his mechanics or mental approach or whatever else may be slightly off. 

At the end of the day, it's all about confidence for Bote — as it is for every player in the big leagues.

"Whether you feel good or feel bad that day, it's trying to be as confident as you can and just letting your ability and your work before that take over," Bote said. "I'm not in the box thinking about my mechanics, but trying to trust that my BP and cage work and all that that takes over and you just go to battle.

"And if [you're still not feeling great], then you say, 'Screw it, I'll just go out there and battle today and get 'em tomorrow.' It's all fluid. It's all ever-changing."

How Cubs will manage the second base picture moving forward

How Cubs will manage the second base picture moving forward

Who should be the Cubs' everyday second baseman? 

It's a topic we've seen pop up every now and then throughout the first couple months of the 2019 season and it's a fair question/debate, but it misses the big picture — the 2019 Cubs probably won't ever have an everyday second baseman. Not with a roster packed with position player depth — even with Ben Zobrist still on personal leave and Ian Happ still working to make consistent offensive adjustments in Triple-A Iowa.

Early on, it looked like Daniel Descalso was emerging as the closest thing the Cubs would get to an everyday second baseman, as the veteran started 21 of the team's first 30 games at the No. 4 spot in the defensive alignment. But then Addison Russell returned from his suspension during the first week of May and Descalso started slumping right around the same time. 

Over the Cubs' last 34 games, Descalso has only drawn 13 starts at second base, with Russell and David Bote essentially splitting time at the position in that span.

Lately, it's been Bote, as Russell has been dealing with a right hand injury he suffered on a slide last Tuesday. When Russell was scratched with the hand issue Wednesday night, Bote was put into the starting lineup on short notice and delivered the historic night where he became the first Cubs second baseman to drive in 7 runs in a game since Ryne Sandberg in 1984.

Russell pinch-hit in the Cubs' win over the Cardinals Saturday and stayed in defensively for the last couple innings. But it was Bote again in the starting lineup for Sunday's homestand finale and delivered the game-winning hit in the fifth inning to break a 1-1 tie.

"Right now, you've seen primarily David and Addison," Joe Maddon said. "I just had a great conversation with Daniel. Daniel's stll working on some things offensively, too. And as he really gets back to where he had been, I'm really eager to get him out there 'cause this guy's a very good offensive player. 

"When Addison's well, I really like that a lot — him and Javy [Baez] up the middle is very intriguing [defensively]. So as he's ready to roll, you'll probably see more of that and then Bote at third and pop [Kris Bryant] back in the outfield. Although KB's playing a really good third base this year — as good as I've seen him."

Maddon acknowledged all the options and depth at his disposal, even without Zobrist and Happ — who were probably the Cubs' two most versatile players on the roster the last couple seasons. 

The trick is just finding somewhat consistent time for each guy to get out there and see regular at-bats. 

That's been even more challenging for Maddon lately, as Descalso's slump continues. He was one of the Cubs' best clutch hitters to begin the year, but since the calendar flipped to May, the 32-year-old veteran is slashing just .103/.209/.138 (.347 OPS) with only 1 extra-base hit and 3 RBI in 29 games. He also has struck out nearly a third of the time (20 whiffs in 68 plate appearances). 

Descalso confirmed he is working on some specific mechanical changes right now, but said it's "nothing crazy."

"I don't want to overhaul [my swing] during the season, but just make some adjustments," he said. "Teams are pitching me a little differently. It's a game of adjustments — they're gonna adjust to you and my job is to adjust back. It hasn't been as smooth as I would like, but just staying the course — out there, trying to have good at-bats, swing at good pitches and hopefully get back on the right track."

He doesn't rate highly in defensive metrics, so if Descalso isn't hitting, it's tough to make the case that he should be playing more over Bote and Russell — who are both better defensively and have been solid offensively. 

The Cubs also haven't utilized Descalso as a utility player this season. He played four positions with the Diamondbacks last year and has seen substantial time at third base, shortstop, first base and left field throughout his big-league career. However, he's almost exclusively been a second baseman with the Cubs, seeing only 1 game at any other spot (2.1 innings at third base).

"I know I haven't been swinging the bat well," Descalso said. "You want to get a hit every time, but sometimes you gotta go with baby steps. Just trying to not make it bigger than it is and keep it simple."

In general, the Cubs need more offensive production out of that position, as the second basemen have combined to hit just .205/.284/.328 (.612 OPS) this season — which ranks last on the team in every category by a wide margin. The Cubs also rank 26th in baseball in second basemen OPS.

Bote's big night Wednesday helped boost those numbers up, but even with that game, he is still hitting only .241 with a .721 OPS while playing second base. 

He's done most of his damage this season as a third baseman (.278 AVG, .863 OPS) and entered play Sunday with almost twice the total offensive value (1.1 WAR) he had all of last season (0.6 WAR).

"He started out well, then he hit a little bit of a skid, which was good because he had some problems at the major-league level early in the season and he's overcome that already," Maddon said. "So you need to go through that adversity, too. My goodness, David's got a great head on his shoulders. He's a team-oriented player. 

"He's like any other young player — he's still working to really understand what's going on every day and understanding himself. But he does it in a very mature way. He's gonna keep getting better. He is. Because he listens well and I think he's getting to the point where he understands his strengths, which is really important. Just watch him — he's gonna continue to get better."