Cubs

Cubs keep loading up on hitters, drafting Ian Happ with No. 9 pick

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Cubs keep loading up on hitters, drafting Ian Happ with No. 9 pick

The Cubs continued to stockpile hitters on Monday night, grabbing University of Cincinnati outfielder/second baseman Ian Happ with the ninth overall pick in the draft.

Happ certainly fits the profile, given his consistent college performance, switch-hitting ability and two All-Star selections in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

Theo Epstein’s front office has now used first-round picks on position players in each of the last four drafts, with Happ joining a wave of young talent that already included Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant and Albert Almora.

Happ worked out at the under-renovation Wrigley Field last week, taking batting practice and driving balls out toward the bleachers from both sides of the plate. The construction crews are supposed to wear hard hats.

“We were trying not to hit ‘em in the head,” Happ joked on a conference call with reporters.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs VP Jason McLeod: No rush with Kyle Schwarber]

The Cubs hope to bludgeon teams with their offense, but they don’t really have any blue-chip pitching prospects in the upper levels of their farm system, no one who looks like an obvious frontline starter in the big leagues.

As expected, the Cubs didn’t have access to UC-Santa Barbara right-hander Dillon Tate (No. 4, Texas Rangers), University of Illinois lefty closer Tyler Jay (No. 6, Minnesota Twins) or Vanderbilt University right-hander Carson Fulmer (No. 8, White Sox).

“We liked all of them that ended up getting taken there in the top 10 picks,” said Jason McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development.

The Cubs didn’t roll the dice on Brady Aiken, who’s recovering from Tommy John surgery and fell to the Cleveland Indians at No. 17.

The Cubs had rated Aiken No. 1 on their board last year, when the left-hander out of San Diego’s Cathedral Catholic High School went first overall to the Houston Astros and failed to reach an agreement amid medical concerns.

[MORE CUBS: Cubs send message in DC: ‘We can play with the big boys’]

“We got to know him very well,” McLeod said. “A team is going to take him and be very happy that they did. We’re going to continue to root for him, because we spent a lot of time with him last year. We did spend time with him this year.

“At the end of the day, we made the selection that we felt was best for our organization. But with how well we got to know him and his family, certainly he’s going to have a lot of people over here rooting for him in his career.”

Gambling on Aiken in that spot would have been out of character for a front office that likes to manage risk this high in the draft.

“We certainly don’t walk away from pitching,” McLeod said. “The history of the draft will tell you that if the players are close on the evaluation, the college hitter is usually the way to go. They’re the ones that usually pan out the best.

“So with talent being equal, probably we would lean towards the college position player. But we’ve taken the guys the last three or four years who we felt was simply the best player at that pick.

“We’re not going to take a player who we feel is a lesser talent or who will provide lesser impact to the organization. We always try to keep the long-term view.”

[MORE CUBS: Javier Baez sidelined with fractured finger at Triple-A Iowa]

There was also a feeling the Cubs might try to follow the same playbook they used last year with Schwarber, signing Happ to a below-slot deal ($3.351 million) and moving the money around in later rounds, allowing them to take more chances.

According to CBSSports.com, Happ is being advised by Casey Close, the same agent who represents Schwarber (and works with Aiken).

“We didn’t take him with the financial aspect of it in mind,” McLeod said. “Last year worked out great with what we were able to do with Kyle. But certainly we have an idea of what it’s going to take or where the signing might come in.

“That’s something that we still need to discuss with his advisor, and we hope to get that done here hopefully pretty soon.”

Happ, 20, is listed at 6-foot-0, 205 pounds. He wasn’t drafted out of Mt. Lebanon High School in Pittsburgh. There are some questions about where he fits defensively, but the Cubs are stressing versatility, trying to give manager Joe Maddon as many mix-and-match options as possible.

“We feel he’s athletic enough to move around,” McLeod said. “We’re not going to put any limitations right now on where he will play.”

[SHOP CUBS: Get you Cubs gear right here]

But the Cubs didn’t draft Happ for his defense. During his three seasons with the Bearcats, he got on base around 46 percent of the time, finishing with more walks (128) than strikeouts (116).

Happ hit .338 with 120 runs, 44 doubles, 25 homers and 107 RBIs for a Cincinnati program that once produced Kevin Youkilis, a two-time World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox who now works part-time for the Cubs as a consultant in scouting and player development.

In trying to build a grinding American League-style lineup, the Cubs are looking for a type. They took University of North Florida outfielder Donnie Dewees in the second round (No. 47 overall) and can look for pitching across the next two days of the draft.

“I’ve definitely heard about the guys that have come before me,” Happ said. “I had a chance to talk to Kyle Schwarber a little bit last year. Great guy. I’m really excited to add to the college bats they have coming through, and hopefully be the next one to move through the system.”

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

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Scott Changnon

Podcast: Cubs pass the first test in midst of crucial stretch

On the latest CubsTalk Podcast Scott Changnon and Tony Andracki discuss the state of the Cubs offense, the value of Javy Baez and Addison Russell and what it means now that the starting rotation looks to be finding its form.

With 17 games in 17 days (most of which come against contending teams), the Cubs started things off right with a series victory in St. Louis.

Listen to the entire podcast here:

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

The Cubs are in a way better spot than they were a year ago

ST. LOUIS — It's night and day watching the 2018 Cubs compared to the 2017 version.

Even with the injury to Javy Baez Sunday night, the Cubs are in a way better spot now than they were a year ago.

On June 17 of last season, the Cubs sat at 33-34 with a run differential of just +6.

They looked flat more often than not. "Hangover" was the word thrown around most and it was true — the Cubs really did have a World Series hangover.

They admit that freely and it's also totally understandable. Not only did they win one of the most mentally and physically draining World Series in history, but they also ended a 108-year championship drought and the weight of that accomplishment was simply staggering. 

The 2018 iteration of the Cubs are completely different. 

Even though they didn't finish off the sweep of their division rivals in St. Louis Sunday night, they're still only a half-game behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central and for the best record in the league. A +95 run differential paced the NL and sat behind only the Houston Astros (+157), Boston Red Sox (+102) and New York Yankees (+98) in the AL.

Through 67 games, the Cubs sat at 40-27, 13 games above .500 compared to a game below .500 at the same point last summer.

What's been the main difference?

"Energy," Joe Maddon said simply. "Coming off the World Series, it was really hard to get us kickstarted. It was just different. I thought the fatigue generated from the previous two years, playing that deeply into the year. A lot of young guys on the team last year.

"We just could not get it kickstarted. This year, came out of camp with a fresher attitude. Not like we've been killing it to this point; we've been doing a lot better, but I didn't even realize that's the difference between last year and this year.

"If anything, I would just pinpoint it on energy."

Of course the physical component is easy to see. The Cubs played past Halloweeen in 2016 and then had so many demands for street namings and talk shows and TV appearances and Disney World and on and on. That would leave anybody exhausted with such a shortened offseason.

There's also the mental component. The Cubs came into 2018 with a chip on their shoulder after running into a wall in the NLCS last fall against the Los Angeles Dodgers. They have a renewed focus and intensity.

But there's still plenty of room for more. The Cubs aren't happy with the best record and run differential in the NL. They know they still haven't fully hit their stride yet, even amidst a 24-13 stretch over the last five weeks.

"I think we've been pretty consistent," Jon Lester said. "We've had some ups and downs on both sides of the ball as far as pitching and hitting. But the biggest thing is our bullpen and our defense has been pretty solid all year.

"That's kept us in those games. When we do lose — you're gonna have the anomalies every once in a while and get blown out — we're in every single game. It's all we can do. Keep grinding it out.

"Our offense will be fine. Our defense and the back end of our bullpen has done an unbelievable job of keeping us in these games. And if we contribute as a starting five, even better. 

"You have the games where our guys get feeling sexy about themselves and score some runs. That's where the snowball effect and we get on that little bit of a run. I feel like we've been on a few runs, it just hasn't been an extended period of time. I don't have any concerns as far as inside this clubhouse."

Lester hit the nail on the head. The Cubs sit at this point with only 1 win from Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood struggling with command and low power numbers from several guys including Kris Bryant.

Throw in the fact that Joe Maddon's Cubs teams always seem to get into a groove in August and September when they're fresher and "friskier" than the rest of the league and this team is currently in very good shape for the remainder of the year. 

If they can get 3 wins away from the World Series after going 33-34, the sky should be the limit for a 2018 squad that's in a much better position 67 games in.