Cubs

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

How Ian Happ helped the 2017 Cubs find their identity

In the span of just over a week, Ian Happ has gone from arguably the Cubs' biggest trade piece to the 2017 savior.

OK, "savior" is extreme, but Happ has been an unlikely stabilizing force for the defending world champions.

In a week's worth of big-league action (seven games), Happ has smacked six extra base-hits, scored seven runs and posted a 1.182 OPS. But his impact has been so much more than just the numbers on the back of his Topps card.

Happ's presence has helped the Cubs reinvent themselves.

The plan heading into the 2017 season was to have Kyle Schwarber lead off and Ben Zobrist reprise his 2016 role as lineup protection for Anthony Rizzo.

But with Schwarber struggling atop the order, Happ's presence has freed up the ever-patient Zobrist to become the team's new leadoff as the week-old rookie is now protecting a perennial MVP candidate in Rizzo.

"It's all based on Ian Happ," Joe Maddon said. "I'm still very aware of protecting Rizzo. And that's where Zobrist came in handy. Now to this point, I'm looking at last month's numbers, Zo's really ascending and Schwarbs has come back a little bit regarding just getting on base.

"So Zo's the most likely candidate among all the groups to try to get on base more often and Rizzo's still protected with Ian. Just moving everybody down one slot with Ian there taking the role of Zobrist, I kinda wanted to give it a try."

It's only one game, but the refurbished lineup scored 13 runs Sunday, collecting 10 extra-base hits and scoring in seven of eight offensive innings.

Happ was right there in the middle of it all, smoking a 108 mph double off the right field wall in the first inning and doubling again later in the game. 

Zobrist homered. Rizzo homered. Bryant — who said hitting third is where he's most comfortable in the lineup — crushed a pair of homers and reached base five times. Schwarber went 1-for-3 with an RBI and a walk.

With Happ's presence bumping Schwarber down in the order, Maddon also has moved back to hitting the pitcher last.

"In my mind's eye, I'm more able or wanting to hit the pitcher ninth again because Schwarber is moved back," Maddon said. "Part of the method was to try to feed Schwarber with a nine-hole hitter."

With Happ in the lineup, the Cubs are averaging 6.3 runs per game. 

Again, it's a small sample size and the Cubs were due for an offensive explosion after a slow start to the season, but Happ has been a central figure.

"Nothing surprises me [with him]," Bryant said. "We all saw what he can do in spring. It's not surprising at all. He's definitely provided a spark for us since he's been up.

"He's just been great out there, moving all over the field. I don't even know what his main position is, but if it's center field, he's out there doing a good job, too."

Willson Contreras helped provide the 2016 Cubs with a jolt of energy when he made his debut in mid-June. Happ is doing the same thing this season, though his arrival has come a month earlier in the 2017 campaign.

Happ has only played one full season of professional baseball and appeared in just 91 games above A-ball before making his big-league debut.

But he's looked like he belongs from the outset, blending into a clubhouse that has welcomed so many young position players over the last few years.

Maddon's message to Happ upon arriving was simple: Why don't you stay a while?

It's not as catchy as "try not to suck," but it has helped Happ relax.

"Sometimes, we underestimate the impact we have on anybody," Maddon said. "In my situation, as a manager to the player, so you say something like that just trying to get somebody to relax and who knows?

"Like Javy with 'try not to suck' a couple years ago, who knows how it's processed and how it permits the player to process the day? I knew how good [Happ] was in spring training, I knew how good he's been this season and I just know how he is.

"So there was no reason for him not to approach it like, 'I want to stay a while.'"

Happ spent most of his time in the minors as a second baseman, but with Baez and Zobrist around, Maddon doesn't see a way to work the rookie in the infield at this time.

But then again, two weeks ago, nobody could fathom how the Cubs could possibly work another position player into the lineup on a consistent basis, but that's worked itself out. Right now, it's Albert Almora Jr. being relegated to the bench as Happ has taken over in center field.

Of course, there's still more than four months left in the season and things will undoubtedly change again. 

But for now, Happ has forced the issue and altered the entire identity of the 2017 Cubs.

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

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AP

Scott Boras' history lesson illustrates why Cubs are unlikely to trade Kris Bryant

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — As the Cubs move into a new era, the Kris Bryant Decision looms large over the entire organization.

Should they trade him now, two years out from free agency (or one year away if he actually wins his service time grievance)? Or is now the time for the Cubs to deliver a huge offer and lock him up long term?

Bryant's agent, Scott Boras, has been one of the most powerful men in baseball over the last couple decades and he's seen many teams go through the same dilemma the Cubs are currently weighing.

In encountering similar situations with players of Bryant's caliber (a former MVP and Rookie of the Year), Boras shed some light on how unlikely it is that the Cubs would actually wind up dealing him.

"Certainly every player I have that is at that level, they're always asking the question about, 'will they? Won't they? Will they trade him? Will they do it?'" Boras said. "And the answer to that is always: I can give you a percentage over a decade of how many of those players get traded and the answer is very low. If you think that much of him and to get something back for him with a limited period of time is always very hard."

He's got a strong point there. Bryant has a career .901 OPS and averages 32 homers, 92 RBI and 112 runs scored per 162 games over his five years in the big leagues. He proved that the lack of power and production in 2018 was injury related with a strong bounceback season this past year, finishing 14th in WAR in the National League while battling through a lingering knee issue. 

Bryant provides a ton of value to the Cubs and his presence on the roster increases the likelihood of winning another World Series over the next two seasons. In order to trade him, they would need a huge haul in return — a package of players that sets the franchise up for success the future without completely sacrificing the short-term and current window of contention. Will some team actually meet the Cubs' asking price?

The service time grievance is a major issue here, as the difference between one and two years of Bryant would be vast. Red Sox star Mookie Betts is a free agent a year from now and Boston is in a similar situation in that they're weighing a potential trade now rather than risk losing Betts to the open market and getting only draft pick compensation in return.

Boras pointed to how the Red Sox and Cubs both won World Series with Betts and Bryant earlier in their careers, leveraging the star players on cheaper deals to allow more resources to augment the roster around them. But now both guys are due a hefty sum of money in 2020 (MLB Trade Rumors estimates the arbitration figure to be $18.5 million for Bryant and $27.7 million for Betts) and it's time for each team to decide which path to go down.

The prevailing thought around the game is that Bryant won't win his grievance, which puts the Cubs in a different spot than the Red Sox in that they have two years of control left. That's key to either dangle in a trade or to allow more time for the two sides to reach an agreement on an extension.

"I've seen clubs take this decision on and it's often been a decision that they regret — whether they've kept him or whether they've traded him," Boras said. "Again, because they're great players, they're really key decisions."

If no team is able to — or decides to — meet the Cubs' price for Bryant in any trade talks, how likely is it the two sides would work out an extension that keeps him in Chicago beyond 2021?

Both sides waved off any notion that the service time grievance has done anything to damage the relationship between Bryant and the club, with Boras emphasizing that this was a "union matter" and was more about being an "advocate for the rights of players." Even if the arbiter rules against Bryant's grievance, it could still be a major step forward in changing the structure of free agency and service time for the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

In the matter of extension talks, Bryant and Boras are all ears.

"Look, we're open to talking with them and we've always said that to them," Boras said. "It's always been Kris' philosophy with the team. 

"I would certainly keep the terms and conditions of the contract negotiations private with the Cubs, but obviously it's always a fairness standard. You want what's fair for him and where he stands in the industry and that's true of any player." 

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Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

Cubs continue behind-the-scenes makeover by hiring new scouting director

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - The Cubs are close to the point of the offseason where their sole focus will be on the roster.

As the final coaching staff comes together, the organization also announced their scouting director Wednesday, adding Dan Kantrovitz as the VP of scouting.

Kantrovitz, 41, spent the last five seasons as the assistant general manager to Billy Beane with the Oakland A's and previously served as the director of scouting for the St. Louis Cardinals for three seasons (2012-14). He is a Brown University graduate and also got his Master's Degree at Harvard.

Kantrovitz is a St. Louis native and was reportedly discussing a return to the Cardinals this winter before he took the job with the Cubs:

He was part of the Cardinals scouting department that drafted Jack Flaherty 34th overall in 2014, plus current Cubs reliever Rowan Wick in the ninth round (300th overall) in 2012 and has other successful high picks on his resume (Michael Wacha, Stephen Piscotty, Luke Weaver).

"We're really excited to be able to bring Danny Kantroviz on board," Theo Epstein said Wednesday at the MLB GM Meetings. "To be able to hire somebody to run our drafts who's already held that position and already run successful drafts in the past, it's a unique opportunity. Guys don't usually go back once they reach the assistant GM level. But in Dan's case, he has just discovered that his passion is running the draft.

"It really fits the exact profile we're looking for. He can scout - he goes out and sees 200 players a year when he's running the draft - and he can really relate very well to scouts and he's also got experience building advanced analytical models and combining both those worlds in a really effective manner. I think he fills a big void for us and look forward to working with him for years to come."

Epstein also called the Kantrovitz hire a "best case scenario" for the Cubs as they reshape their front office infrastructure. In September, Epstein moved Jason McLeod from head of scouting and player development (the position he held since coming over to the Cubs after the 2011 season) into a special assistant role in the big-league front office and shook up the player development department.

They wanted a fresh perspective and new insight into the draft and developing players given the organization's inability to produce homegrown pitchers in the eight years under Epstein's reign. Kantrovitz is the guy they've chosen to now lead the scouting department and the hope is he's able to find more success in the draft.

"Dan is as qualified as maybe anyone out there in baseball to do [balance all the information on draft day] since he has scouted extensively and is on the road the entire draft season seeing players and has done so for many years," Epstein said. "He also is one of the top quants [quantitative analyst] in the game as well. Builds his own models and understands it on a granular level - not just to the R & D department, but being a part of it and not just relating to scouts but being one. He brings a really unique skillset and set of experiences to the position."

That's another big hire to check off the list for the Cubs as the offseason starts to heat up. Epstein and Co. can now turn their attention to fine-tuning the roster to ensure the whole is greater than the sum of the parts in 2020. 

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