MESA, Ariz. – Ian Happ doesn't necessarily have to be a trade chip to impact a pennant race this summer. The Cubs believe his Wrigley Field ETA could be as soon as 2017.
The Opening Day roster is out of the question. Javier Baez is one of the most electrifying players in the game — a human highlight film in October and the World Baseball Classic — and even he doesn't have an everyday spot in this lineup.
That critical mass of hitters means Happ's name will be in trade rumors if/when the Cubs need to deal for pitching at the deadline. But this franchise also watched first-round picks from the 2012, 2013 and 2014 drafts help spark a 10th-inning, Game 7 rally in the 2016 World Series.
There are enough signs to think Happ — the ninth overall pick in the 2015 draft out of the University of Cincinnati — could join Albert Almora Jr., Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber in The Show at some point this season.
"Yes, he is in the conversation," manager Joe Maddon said. "Now it's up to him to go out there and perform at a level that indicates that he's ready right now. Spring training and the regular season — even in the minor leagues — is entirely different."
Happ's Cactus League performance —.417 batting average and 1.239 OPS through 18 games — obviously doesn't mean all that much in isolation. But Theo Epstein's front office knows how to identify college hitters and Maddon is willing to move players around and trust rookies on a contending team.
Happ started in left field against Team Japan during Saturday afternoon's exhibition at Sloan Park, moving off second base and demonstrating the defensive versatility and switch-hitting skills that could put him on a faster track.
"It's up to him," Maddon said. "Right now, he looks great. He's going to have to go out and play. Listen, I think he's really good. He's a major-league player, absolutely. Right now, he's kicking it pretty good.
"But you don't know what's going to happen during the season. You don't know how he's going to react to the beginning part of the year. For me – with guys like that – let them go play and they'll let you know when they're ready."
Happ isn't on the 40-man roster yet and he's only played 65 games above the A-ball level. The flexibility might reflect a so-so defender without an obvious spot more than a super-utility guy in the Ben Zobrist mold. But the guy can hit, Maddon's philosophy has created a trickle-down effect in the farm system and the Cubs aren't afraid to push young talent.
"He's very self-confident," Maddon said. "Not in an arrogant way, but in an ‘I can do this, I belong here' kind of a way. And I think that's going to get him here sooner.
"You look at what gets him here sooner: Where's the need going to arise? If you just slot him at second base only – and that's the only position you feel comfortable with and you need a left fielder or whatever – (it becomes): ‘Oh, we can't bring him up because he doesn't play that position.' That's why I think the versatility is so important. But I like what I've seen."