MESA, Ariz. — Don't write the obituary on Ian Happ's career as a second baseman just yet.
The versatile young player started 28 games at second base during his rookie year in 2017, but did not see a start in 2018 and played just 3 innings at the position the entire season.
Thats not a trend that typically bodes well for Happ's future at second base.
But it's not necessarily a trend that will continue.
After last season ended, Happ had a conversation with Maddon and was direct: He wants to be included in the second base picture.
"We were in contact several times," Maddon said Sunday. "One of the things I really like about Ian is that he is very lucid and transparent regarding what he's thinking and he brought that to my attention."
Happ has been clinging to his desire to play second base in much the same way Kyle Schwarber passionately stuck by his love for being a catcher. But as the Schwarber situation proved, you need more than just passion (though, undoubtedly, Schwarber's major knee injury in 2016 and that entire lost year of development played a factor in his scenario).
The Cubs drafted Happ with the 9th overall pick in 2015 out of the University of Cincinnati, where he spent time in both the infield and outfield. Coming out of college, there were concerns about Happ's ability to stick in the infield, but he started more games at second base (107) than he did in the outfield (30) over his 3 years in the minor-league system.
Last spring, there was a push for Happ as a primary outfielder for several reasons: 1) it was the position he was most likely going to end up at long-term and 2) the Cubs had more playing time available in the outfield with Jon Jay departing and the combination of Ben Zobrist and Javy Baez dominating time at second base.
This spring, things are quite a bit different. Baez will shift over to shortstop for at least the first month of the season and the second base picture is filled with a bunch of players (Zobrist, Daniel Descalso, David Bote) who can also play a host of other positions. (Nobody knows yet how Addison Russell fits into the picture if he returns from suspension.)
If Happ wanted another shot at proving his mettle at second base, now is as good a time as any.
But it won't be easy. Zobrist and Descalso have much more experience at the position and Bote is a natural second baseman who has already impressed the Cubs with his infield defense in his brief big-league career.
The switch-hitting Happ, meanwhile, still figures to see a good amount of playing time in the outfield as a potential platoon option to Jason Heyward (right field), Albert Almora Jr. (center field) and Kyle Schwarber (left field). Happ will also back up the corner infield spots as he did last year.
"He made it clear to me he wants to be considered to play second base," Maddon said. "...He wants for me and us to know that he'll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup. If we're facing a lefty or whatever and he wants in the lineup or a righty and the outfield's set up a certain way, he knows there might be an option somewhere else to play if we want to move it around or just give somebody a day off. He's smart. It's just about him wanting to get into the lineup."
Happ has only played 263.1 innings at second base in the majors and the Cubs would like to see him grow as a defender, though they understand he needs reps to continue to develop.
"When you watch him, he's still a work in progress when it comes to being — for lack of a better term — a little bit more smooth, but then again, he's effective," Maddon said. "I've seen some really good defenders that aren't necessarily this Spalding guy, but they don't make mistakes. Probably just [improving his] lateral range, going to his right as much as anything, backhanding, throwing that ball. He's got a really strong arm; he can complete a double play.
"It's just a nuance — the lateral movement nuance of the position. But he's smart — he knows where to be, he knows where cutoffs and relays occur, he knows all that stuff. It's just like this repetitive thing, I would say for me in my mind's eye - going over [to the right] more smoothly to make that play would be something optimal for him.
"He's not the Spalding guy all the time, but he's pretty effective out there. I think it's just repetition."
The Cubs aren't guaranteeing Happ playing time at second base or anything like that. But at the very least, it appears they're open to giving him a legitimate shot this spring to potentially earn an opportunity in the regular season.
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