Cubs

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

How close is Ian Happ to rejoining the Cubs?

Is Ian Happ nearing a return to Chicago?

In a surprise move at the end of spring training, the Cubs sent the 24-year-old switch-hitter down to the minor leagues to work on his swing and try to cut down on strikeouts.

Happ's numbers in Iowa don't jump off the page at you (.240/.362/.422), but it looks like he may be turning a corner of late. He homered Monday night then went 4-for-4 with another homer, 2 doubles and 5 RBI in the second game of a doubleheader Wednesday.

That's obviously a very small sample size, however, and even including that, Happ is still struggling to make consistent contact. He has struck out 14 times in 25 at-bats over his last 8 games. 

His overall strikeout percentage on the season is 25.9 percent — a major improvement on the 36.1 percent mark he struggled through in the big leagues last year. But Happ had never struck out more than 23.6 percent of the time in a season coming up through the minor leagues, so that number is still higher than the Cubs would like to see.

"If [the mini hot streak] were sustained, you'd have to really start listening," Joe Maddon said. "I'm following him via video, watching the at-bats. I'm doing that almost daily with him. I know prior to that, he had still had some problems with strikeouts. 

"And then hit a home run the other day and that seems like that's led to this other home run. That would be primarily a call on the front office and the minor-league part [on when to call him up], but I will watch the video. The home run I saw, I liked. I thought he had much better balance on the entire swing."

Obviously the Cubs aren't going to overreact to a couple games and deem Happ ready to return to the big leagues based off a handful of at-bats.

But there's also a solid case to be made that he could help the club in Chicago right now.

Despite a hot start to the season, the Cubs' role players have really fallen off the last few weeks and much of the offensive damage has come from the big boppers (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Javy Baez, Willson Contreras) recently.

There's no indication Ben Zobrist is coming back anytime soon, as Maddon said Thursday morning he hasn't spoken to the veteran in a couple days. 

David Bote and Jason Heyward have looked better this week, but they were struggling for the first couple weeks of May. 

Daniel Descalso has really been scuffling, hitting .097 with only 1 extra-base hit in May and his defense at second base has been below average.

Then there's Mark Zagunis, who isn't doing much of anything for the Cubs — literally. He hasn't started a game since April 26 and hasn't seen even one inning in the outfield since then, either, serving exclusively as a pinch-hitter for the last month.

So if the Cubs decide soon that Happ is ready to return to the big leagues, they have a simple decision on the roster spot and right now, there might be an avenue to a decent amount of playing time either at second base or the outfield.

Happ may not be the best or most experienced defender at second base, but he's seen some time there in the minors this season (59.2 innings) and he can also play either of the corner infield spots and all three outfield positions.

But would it be prudent for the Cubs to call up Happ if they don't even have room for him to play every day? That could throw a wrench in his development, which is clearly something the organization has been committed to.

Albert Almora Jr. is still easily the best centerfielder on the roster and has been great offensively for the last month, so it's not like he's done anything to deserve falling back into a platoon with Happ in center like they shared for much of 2018.

"It's hard. You would want to [call him up only if there's ample time to play him]," Maddon said. "But if you could morph him in and there's a platoon that's worthwhile, you could do that, also.

"But part of him being [in the minors] right now on a consistent basis is to get these kind of at-bats to get this all worked out and you would not want to lose that, either. But when he were to come back, being that he could hit left-handed obviously permits us to do other things."

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Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

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MLB NETWORK

Cubs Talk Podcast: Lee Smith Hall of Fame edition

Listen to Lee Smith's entire Hall of Fame induction speech in the embedded player below.

Cubs Talk Podcast

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Cubs trade rumors: Nick Castellanos drawing interest and could be the perfect fit

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USA TODAY

Cubs trade rumors: Nick Castellanos drawing interest and could be the perfect fit

Ever since infielder/outfielder Ben Zobrist hit the restricted list for personal reasons on May 8, one of the biggest talking points around the Cubs has been the team’s need for a steady, veteran bat.

Enter Tigers outfielder Nick Castellanos.

Sunday, Chris McCosky of The Detroit News reported that the Cubs have emerged as a "serious suitor" for Castellanos, citing a source. 

McCosky’s report follows that of MLB Network’s Jon Morosi, who reported that the Cubs had a scout in attendance at Friday’s Tigers-Blue Jays game in Detroit.

It’s currently unclear what a trade package for Castellanos, 27, would look like, but his fit with the team is obvious. In Castellanos, the Cubs would acquire a veteran outfield bat, one that hits extremely well against left-handed pitching.

Castellanos, who is a free agent after this season, has mainly hit second and third for the Tigers and led the team with 23 home runs in 2018. He holds a .280/.339/.467 slashline, with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs this season. Those numbers are even better against left-handers — .377/.451/.639 — albeit in a small sample size of 61 at-bats. However, in his 6+ MLB seasons, he's hitting .302 with an .871 OPS against left-handed pitching. 

The Cubs have struggled against left-handed pitching in 2019, ranking 23rd in average (.243) and 28th in hits with 164. Castellanos would rank first among qualified Cubs hitters vs. left-handers in average and OBP and only trail Javier Baez’s .776 in slugging percentage.

While it's true that Castellanos hits left-handed pitching well, he'd instantly become an everyday player in the Cubs outfield. Thus, the Cubs depth chart would be hit with several ripple effects.

Albert Almora Jr.'s  playing time against right-handed starting pitching would be affected. Almora held a .282/.315/.369 slashline against right-handed pitching in 2018, but those numbers currently sit at .255/.291/.427.

Almora's numbers against lefites (.210/.247/.296) aren't better, but his 2018 slashline there (.295/.340/.402) leaves room for hope. Also, Kyle Schwarber is only hitting .224 against lefties, so adding Castellanos would likely mean Almora starts less against righties and Schwarber less against lefties. Almora does provide Gold Glove caliber defense, so the Cubs may be more inclined to let him work through his struggles at the plate.

Similarly, David Bote's playing time could also be affected by Castellanos. Without the latter, the Cubs have more of a need to play Kris Bryant in the outfield, meaning third base is open for Bote to play. Adding Castellanos might mean Bryant playing more third base and less outfield, so Bote would have to crack the starting lineup at second base, more likely than not. The same goes for Robel Garcia, though his bat is making it hard to keep him out of the starting lineup right now.

Between Almora and Schwarber's numbers and Zobrist’s absence, the Cubs have a glaring need for more outfield offense. Adding Castellanos could be exactly what the doctor ordered for the Cubs offensively.

Update: Our David Kaplan added that the Cubs have also had discussions for Tigers closer Shane Greene.

Greene, 30, is arbitration eligible this offseason. The right-hander has converted 22 of his 25 save chances this season and has 40 strikeouts compared to 11 walks. However, his 3.54 FIP is a far cry from his 1.25 ERA, and the overriding thought has been that the Cubs would seek left-handed relief help rather than right-handed.

Greene entered Sunday with a lower ERA against lefties (0.64) than righties (1.29), though lefties are hitting .222 against him compared to .097 by righties. If the Cubs were to acquire him, he obviously wouldn't slot into the Cubs closer role, as Craig Kimbrel has the position locked down. As Kaplan noted, the cost to get both Castellanos and Greene would be steep, especially with the latter being a top relief arm on the trade market.

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