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.
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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.
“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.”
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.”
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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.”