Tim Stebbins

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

Following 2019 'learning process,' Ian Happ's offensive progression key for 2020 Cubs

It’s been another quiet offseason for the Cubs.

January is almost over and the Cubs have yet to commit a single guaranteed dollar to the big-league roster. After exceeding MLB’s luxury tax threshold in 2019, Theo Epstein and Co. are looking to get under the figure in 2020 and reset penalties entering 2021.

Barring any major surprises — i.e. a core player getting dealt before Opening Day — the club will return largely the same team from last season. That group has plenty of talent, but there are some question marks, like second base and center field.

A fan made waves at Cubs Convention last Saturday, reciting the definition of insanity to Epstein and Jed Hoyer during a baseball operations panel. With a similar roster in hand, why should fans expect anything different from the Cubs in 2020?

For Epstein, part of the answer lies in the continued development of homegrown players like Ian Happ.

Happ was supposed to be a key cog for the Cubs in 2019, but he was sent to Triple-A Iowa at the end of spring training after striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats. This followed a 2018 season in which he sported a 36.1 percent strikeout rate.

“He was striking out 30 percent of the time and we decided to send him down, because what we were seeing with Ian Happ, in our mind, wasn’t the finished product,” Epstein said Saturday at the Sheraton Grand Chicago. “We believe it’s the same way with a lot of our hitters, that’s there’s tremendous talent in there, but it wasn’t manifesting in major league games — which is all that matters — the way we needed it to.”

Happ was reportedly upset with the move, but his strikeout rate dropped to 26.3 percent with Iowa. After the Cubs recalled him on July 26, he posted a 25 percent rate in 58 games (156 plate appearances), slashing .264/.333/.564. He recognizes the demotion was beneficial.

“I got a lot of at-bats. I used it as a learning process,” Happ told NBC Sports Chicago Friday of his Triple-A stint. “To be able to come back and have success, it was a good way to finish the season."

Happ ended the season on a high note, slashing .311/.348/.672 in September with six home runs. He was tremendous over the season’s final eight games: .480/.519/1.200, five homers and 12 RBIs.

“Just being more aware of the ways guys were gonna pitch me,” Happ said regarding his hot September. “There’s some tweaks. For me, it was more about handling different pitches and when to use two different swings — when to be a little bit more defensive, when to put the ball in play. It led to results.”

Cubs players have been criticized in recent seasons for a seeming unwillingness to shorten up at times to put the ball in play. Their 73.8 percent contact rate in 2019 was last in the National League, though Ben Zobrist’s personal absence contributed to the low figure.

Happ posted a 71.7 percent contact rate, up from his 63.5 percent rate in 2018.

“He went through a really difficult stretch in Iowa, making significant adjustments to his approach and his swing and as a person, growing from some failure,” Epstein said. “When he came back up towards the end of last year, his strikeout rate was under much better control, he had much more contact ability.

“He wasn’t driving the ball quite the same, and then by the end of the year, he had maintained that better contact rate, was starting to drive the ball again, and it looked pretty dynamic and pretty promising for the future.”

It’s not a coincidence Happ made strides with Iowa. He got to work on his swing in an environment where he played every day. This wouldn’t have been the case in the big leagues, especially if his struggles lingered.

Happ started each of the Cubs’ last six games; he said it's huge for his confidence knowing he'd be playing every day. 

“It’s huge, it’s huge. I think that’s what everyone’s striving for in this league, is be able to [play every day],” he said. “For me, after that stretch and being able to finish strong and look back on a solid year, that’s big moving forward.”

The Cubs roster may look the same, but there’s plenty of room for internal improvement. Pitchers will continue adjusting to Happ, but he’s a better player for what he went through last season. He can take what he learned and carry it into 2020.

“So now, same player on the roster — and I understand the definition of insanity — but to expect Ian Happ to grow from what he’s gone through and benefit from the coaching that he’s gotten,” Epstein said, “and the lessons that he’s learned and the adversity that he’s gone through, and go out and be a productive player for us next year in a certain role, I don’t think is insane.”

“It’s just about sticking with the process, understanding that that’s what worked and that’s what you want to do,” Happ said. “It’s not always easy at the beginning of the year at Wrigley. It’s cold, it’s windy. The results don’t always show up. But if you’re true to the process and you keep going, by the end of the year you’ll be at a good spot.”

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Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

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USA TODAY

Marcell Ozuna signing with Braves rules out potential suitor for Kris Bryant

When former Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson signed with the Twins last week, one thought was Atlanta could pivot and try to acquire Kris Bryant to fill the void in their lineup.

That possibility looks less likely now, as the Braves announced Tuesday they’ve signed former Cardinals outfielder Marcell Ozuna to a one-year, $18 million deal.

The Braves didn’t have a dire need for a third baseman — 22-year-old Austin Riley, a former top prospect, is waiting in the wings — so much as they needed a bat to replace Donaldson. Bryant would have checked both those boxes, but the path to acquiring him is more difficult.

Bryant has been fixated in trade rumors this winter, but any extensive negotiations won’t occur until his service time grievance case is resolved. NBC Sports Chicago’s David Kaplan reported last week Bryant trade rumors this winter have been “greatly exaggerated” because the lingering grievance.

The Braves have been named a potential Bryant suitor as they hold the top prospects the Cubs would seek in return for Bryant. MLB Network’s Jon Heyman threw cold water on that notion recently.

There’s also the possibility the Cubs don’t move at all Bryant this offseason.

"No, we're not in a position where we *have* to do anything,” Cubs president Theo Epstein said Friday at Cubs Convention. “I think you want to always avoid being put in a corner where you have to make a deal and your back's against the wall and you're gonna take any deal that's out there.

“We’re not at all in that position but looking at the longer time horizon of the next two years, I think you would be wise at some point to do something that looks out a little bit more for the long-term and a little bit less for the short-term, but that doesn't have to happen now. We're not in a position where we have to move anybody."

Ozuna joining the Braves means the Cardinals lost one of their most productive bats from the 2019 division championship club. Like the Cubs, St. Louis' offseason has been marked by low-key moves, outside of the Cardinals acquiring pitching prospect Matthew Liberatore from the Rays, a deal which sent Cardinals slugger Jose Martinez to Tampa Bay.

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Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

Cubs acquire righty reliever Travis Lakins from Red Sox as bullpen stockpiling continues

The Cubs continued their stockpiling of relievers on Tuesday, acquiring right-hander Travis Lakins from the Red Sox. The North Siders will send a player to be named later or cash considerations to Boston in return.

Lakins is a former sixth-round pick by the Red Sox who made his big-league debut last season. The 25-year-old sported a 3.86 ERA in 16 appearances, three of which he started the game as an "opener." He pitched 23 1/3 innings in the big leagues season, striking out 18 while walking 10. He holds a 4.45 ERA in parts of five minor-league seasons.

Lakins' fastball ranks in the 70th percentile for spin rate, averaging 93.7 mph with his four-seamer last season with Boston. 

The Cubs have acquired a plethora of low-key relievers this winter, including Dan Winkler, Ryan Tepera, Jason Adam and now Lakins. The club lost stalwart Steve Cishek to the White Sox and haven't been connected to the reliable Brandon Kintzler this offseason.  Pedro Strop is also a free agent, and the Cubs are reportedly interested in a reunion.

As of now, the only locks for the 2020 bullpen are closer Craig Kimbrel, Rowan Wick, Kyle Ryan and Brad Wieck. Thus, the Cubs have been gathering as many relief options as possible with the hope some will emerge as viable relief candidates this season. At the least, they'll have plenty of depth in case any injuries occur or if any arms underperform.

"You realize to get through a season, it's not a matter of going up on a whiteboard and writing up your eight relievers," Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer said at Cubs Convention Saturday. "It's a matter of [needing] 15, 20, 25 good relievers over the course of the summer to really get through it.

"When you guys see a lot of these transactions of relievers, often times they're going to be coming off down years. For the most part, I bet you when we acquire a guy, you can look back and you can see a year in the not-too-distant past when they had a really good year.

"That's the kind of shot we have to take, and that's the kind of shot every team has to take on capturing that lightning in a bottle. Buying really high on relievers and signing them after they have a breakout year is really expensive and really difficult and doesn't have a great success rate. We try to find those guys that we can catch lightning in a bottle, and that's been a big part of our strategy."

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