Ian Happ delivers instant impact as Cubs roll out another top prospect

Ian Happ delivers instant impact as Cubs roll out another top prospect

ST. LOUIS – During spring training, Cubs officials talked up Ian Happ as someone who could help the team this season. May 13 still would have sounded extremely early for his big-league debut. 
But things haven't gone exactly according to plan for the defending World Series champs and Happ might be the spark the Cubs need now. A wave of health issues forced the shorthanded Cubs to promote Happ from Triple-A Iowa and put the elite prospect second in their lineup and in right field at Busch Stadium.
"This is one of those situations where you might wake up tomorrow and not remember what happened," Happ said before Saturday's 5-3 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals. "You just got to really slow everything down, enjoy it and be in the moment."
There's no chance Happ forgets this day, from his hard slide into second base drawing an interference call – and teeing up state-of-baseball rants from Joe Maddon and Jon Lester – to the Carlos Martinez slider he launched 413 feet over the bullpen in right-center field for a two-run homer.
Happ – the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft – looked like more than just a short-term solution while their regulars rest up and recover. As a switch-hitter who can move around the infield and the outfield, Happ profiles like an ideal Maddon player.
The manager delivered this message to Happ: "Enjoy the moment. You deserve to be here. I don't know if it's going to be a week or the whole season. I have no idea. But don't worry about that. Just go play."

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With so many question marks on the roster, the Cubs optioned reliever Felix Pena back to Iowa and waited for medical updates. Reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant is battling a stomach illness. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell is working through a sore right shoulder. World Series MVP Ben Zobrist is feeling a nagging stiffness in his back. Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward is on the disabled list with a sprained finger on his right hand. Back spasms knocked outfielder Jon Jay out of Friday's win over the Cardinals after one inning. 
The scouting-and-player-development machine the Cubs promised to build has now rolled out first-round picks from the 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 drafts onto the 25-man roster: Javier Baez, Albert Almora Jr., Bryant, Kyle Schwarber and Happ.  
"You just got to go out and play baseball," said Happ, who also struck out and drew a walk against Martinez and should have notched his first hit on a fifth-inning play that was ruled an error on Cardinals first baseman Matt Carpenter. "I'm here to help this team win and do everything I can.
"That's kind of been the M.O. of the team for the last few years, guys coming up and helping the club."
What had been a surplus of position players could also make Happ a trade chip by the July 31 deadline as the Cubs search for pitching help. Happ certainly marketed himself in the Cactus League, hitting .383 with five homers and a 1.191 OPS and working hard to erase some of the doubts about his defensive fit. 
That sense of momentum carried over to Iowa, even with a detour to the disabled list with a sprained left thumb. Happ put up a .298 average, nine homers, six doubles and 25 RBI through his first 26 games on the Triple-A level.  
"He made an awesome impression on everybody," Zobrist said. "He's got power. He's patient as a hitter. He's a strong kid and he can hit, so I think he's going to help us. I'm excited for him to help us."

Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here


Hendricks, Chatwood, Alzolay and where the Cubs rotation goes from here

Kyle Hendricks' shoulder injury isn't opening the door for Adbert Alzolay to make his way into the Cubs rotation.

Not initially, at least.

The Cubs will hand Tyler Chatwood the ball in Hendricks' normal spot Thursday evening against the Mets at Wrigley Field, keeping Alzolay in the minors for the time being. 

When Hendricks hit the injured list over the weekend, many speculated it could be the Cubs' top pitching prospect who gets the call, as Alzolay has been on fire in Triple-A (1.93 ERA, 40 K in 28 innings over his last 5 starts). But the Cubs have two veteran starting pitching options hanging out in their bullpen in Chatwood and Mike Montgomery and it would send a bad message inside the clubhouse to pass over those guys and call up a starter from the minors to take a turn in the rotation.

The Cubs also felt like Chatwood has earned the chance to start after dealing with last year's struggles and having a resurgent season out of the bullpen and in his one previous spot start.

"He's been pitching a lot better," Joe Maddon said of Chatwood. "We believe he's earned this opportunity to pitch in the situation. ... It's an earned situation."

The Cubs made sure Chatwood was stretched out, as they held him back in case of extra innings Sunday night in Los Angeles and then had him throw in the bullpen after the game to help build his stamina back up to join the rotation.

But even if Alzolay won't be joining the rotation this week, that doesn't mean his opportunity isn't right around the corner. The Cubs have been discussing the potential for a six-man rotation in the near future, as they just began a stretch of 17 games in 17 days before their next break on July 5. 

"That's been something we've talked about a lot," GM Jed Hoyer said. "This is really the third time we've had 2-3 weeks in a row [of games]. No doubt, the starters wear down after 2-3 times through the rotation on four days rest and we're aware of their age and mileage on some of these guys. We want to make sure we take care of them. In general, getting extra rest is something we've talked about going into the break."

The Cubs have gone to a six-man rotation before and after the All-Star Break in past seasons and it makes sense to do so again this year, even with Hendricks on the shelf. Montgomery and Alzolay are both options and then Chatwood, of course, though Maddon insisted the Cubs have not come up with a concrete plan for the rotation beyond Thursday's outing.

The big question looming over the rotation is how long Hendricks will be out. He was in some kind of groove before experiencing shoulder issues in his last start against the Dodgers.

"All the test confirmed what we thought — he's kinda dealing with an impingement," Hoyer said. "I feel like we got ahead of it. We're not sure how much time he'll miss. We'll try to take it slowly and take the length of the season into account."

It's still only mid-June and the Cubs are hoping they're going to be playing baseball for another four-plus months, so they know how important Hendricks is to the overall goal of a second championship. 

They'll practice patience with him in his recovery, but right now, they can't say whether or not Cubs fans will be able to see him pitch again before the All-Star Game.

Cubs players support White Sox extending protective netting: 'That's a positive step for the sport'

Cubs players support White Sox extending protective netting: 'That's a positive step for the sport'

Albert Almora’s foul ball that struck a young girl in Houston’s Minute Maid Park started a discussion around baseball. The other team in Chicago became the first to act on it.

On Tuesday, the White Sox announced that the team will be extending the protective netting at Guaranteed Rate Field to both foul poles later this summer. As the news broke in the afternoon, Cubs players were asked about it before the first Crosstown game of the year. Unsurprisingly, all of them were in favor of the move.

“I think obviously that’s a positive step in this sport,” Almora said. “I don’t think anybody should go home with bumps or bruises or even worse so whatever they got to do to take care of that, I’m glad they’re taking procedures.”

Almora admitted that the incident he was involved in has moved the conversation forward and led to more action from teams. Before the White Sox announced the decision, the Iowa Cubs, the Cubs Triple-A affiliate, had said they would be extending the netting at their park.

“Unfortunately my incident was, I don’t want to say the reason behind it, but I think teams are obviously paying attention,” Almora said. “Even incidents that aren’t making headlines, we had one in Dodgers Stadium where I saw the section of the crowd go silent while we’re still playing. At least 10 fans go home with bumps and bruises at the best. I don’t want to see that and I know any player in this league doesn’t want to see that either.”

Manager Joe Maddon said this wouldn't have happened so quickly without Almora's incident.

"Everything that occurs like that is going to expedite," Maddon said. "It always does. It normally takes a situation to get things rolling so of course it had some bearing on it."

Jon Lester thinks more teams will follow suit now that the White Sox have been the first one to extend the netting.

“Would I like to see it? 100 percent, but we’ll see how far my opinion gets us,” Lester said. “It’s a positive. Obviously when one team does it, then you get kind of the herding effect and the rest of people follow.”

Anthony Rizzo also believes the rest of the league will get there eventually, but wasn’t sure going all the way to the foul poles is necessary.

“Both foul poles is pretty aggressive in my opinion, but you don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Rizzo said. “I think sooner or later it probably will end up being both foul poles for every team, but I think the netting here is really good. There’s some line drives that hit fans, but that’s far enough away where it’s not the span of a finger and if you’re engaged in a game, which most everyone here is usually. You don’t ever want to see anyone get hurt so whatever it takes for people not to get hurt.”

Maddon told a story from his playing career to explain why the issue was close to him before Almora's foul ball. When he played in Quad Cities in 1976, he saw a kid sitting behind home plate get hit in the face because the net wasn't very wide. 

"I sat with his dad and the kid had a bloody face and from that moment it made an impact on me," Maddon said. "I won't let my kids sit anywhere at a ballpark unless there's a net in front of them or if they're high enough or far enough back that the velocity is off the baseball by the time it gets there. The way the nets are today, you can see through them relatively well. I'm good."

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