With Cubs at a crossroads, Ian Happ looms as an intriguing piece this winter


With Cubs at a crossroads, Ian Happ looms as an intriguing piece this winter

As the Cubs begin their offseason of change, Ian Happ looms as one of the team's most intriguing pieces.

Do you trade the 25-year-old switch-hitter who can play six defensive positions, has four years of team control left and loads of potential? Or do you keep him and move into 2020 with him as part of your offensive core?

This season didn't exactly play out the way Happ — or the Cubs — would've liked for him in Year 3, but he does have one thing going for him that nobody else can say: He will be the reigning National League Player of the Week for the next six months.

Happ hit .455 with a 1.636 OPS, 4 homers and 10 RBI over the final week of the 2019 regular season, earning the weekly accolade alongside Gerrit Cole in the American League.

Sure, Happ was only playing as much as he was because the Cubs were out of it (he made six straight starts to end the year, but started just six of the previous 24 games). But he was still performing at a high level against a Cardinals team fighting for the division.

The last week is a nice way to tie a bow on a season in which Happ made a ton of adjustments despite sporadic playing time and four months in the minor leagues. He cut his strikeout rate by 11.1 percent (down to a reasonable 25 percent) while still walking at a solid clip (9.6 percent) and actually saw an uptick in power (.300 ISO).

Happ has a much smaller sample size obviously, but he was actually more productive as big-league hitter this season (127 wRC+, .898 OPS) than Paul Goldschmidt (116 wRC+, .821 OPS), the No. 3 hitter on the division-winning Cardinals.

Happ also rated highly by defensive metrics while playing — and making starts at — six different positions. Add it all up and he reached the same 1.5 WAR he had in 2018, though in 84 fewer games. 

"I've always had the confidence that I could put together those types of at-bats," Happ said on the final weekend of the season, "and to able to do it at any point in the season, it's a good bounce. But to be able to do it heading into the offseason just provides some confidence.

"Where I was [in early-September] to where my numbers sit now is nice. I feel like I've made a lot of progress. Been a lot of improvement and some of the ancillary numbers that people were worried about, they're where they should be and they're more normal, more regulated. I thought last year they were inflated. To have some of those numbers in the right spots and see the success on the field is important."

But how much of Happ's 2019 numbers are the result of a hot streak at the end of the season that may have inflated (to borrow his word) the overall line? That's the question the Cubs have to ask themselves this winter and come up with some sort of solid answer. 

On the one hand, maybe the end of the season came at the wrong time for Happ. Maybe he would've been able to continue some level of hot production for a little while longer if he was seeing consistent playing time.

On the other hand, maybe a slump was right around the corner and the season just happened to end while Happ's numbers were at a peak.

The key lies in those "ancillary numbers" Happ mentioned, which are all contact-related.

He made a lot more contact on pitches inside the strike zone this year compared to 2018 (82.1 percent to 70.2 percent) and he made more contact overall (71.7 percent vs. 63.5 percent). We already touched on the strikeouts — it's difficult for any hitter to be productive when they're whiffing more than 1/3 of the time (36.1 percent in 2018).

"I think last year a lot, I was chasing swings, chasing feels," Happ said. "When you spend the season doing that, it's a long, very difficult mental battle and then it's very difficult to compete in the game because when you come down to it, it's you vs. the pitcher. And if you can flush the rest of that and just go compete, you have a better chance than if you're trying to chase some sort of feeling that gets in the way of performance."

He feels like he did a much better job of simply competing this season, especially in the final stretch. Confidence is so important in this game and Happ began the fall with a great feeling about where he was at personally even if his team wasn't getting an opportunity to chase another championship ring.

"If you're 1-for-4 or 1-for-5 in a game, but your first at-bat was the hit, you leave the park not feeling so good," Happ said. "But if your last at-bat was a hit, you leave the park feeling OK."

Happ chalked his 2019 up as a year of growth for him, both personally and as a player. He dealt with a lot of frustration in those first few months down in the minor leagues, knowing he wasn't able to do contribute to the big-league club and help the Cubs find some consistency.

"When you've been with this group for a couple years and believe in these guys and they're your friends and colleagues and the guys you want to go to work with every day and then not being able to do that for a while — not being able to be here with the team and feel like you helped enough — that's the tough part," he said. "But I feel like I'm a better baseball player leaving this year than I was leaving last year. You just take that and move on and see what you can do with it next year."

In the small sample size, it seems clear Happ is correct in his assessment that he will enter this winter a better player than he was a year ago. A lot of other teams might agree and look at his age, skillset, versatility and team control (he's not a free agent until after the 2023 season) and put in a call to Theo Epstein's front office about a possible offseason trade. 

Or the Cubs could hold on to Happ, valuing all those positive assets and believing the production has caught up to his potential. At the moment, nobody has a stranglehold on the everyday centerfield job (unless Jason Heyward's move there was more than just a couple-month adjustment for the sake of the 2019 team).

It's one of many tough questions the Cubs will have to answer this offseason.

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

Astros have shown interest in Willson Contreras, report says

As the Cubs look to retool their roster and improve a depleted farm system, it’s evident a member of the team’s core position player group may get traded this offseason. That player could be catcher Willson Contreras.

Thursday, The Athletic’s Patrick Mooney and Sahadev Sharma (subscription required) reported the Astros “went into this offseason” with interest in Contreras.

Majority of Houston’s core position players are under contract for 2020 — like the Cubs — though the Astros currently lack a catcher. Both starter Robinson Chirinos and backup Martin Maldonado — who briefly was a Cub in 2019 — are free agents.

Chirinos hit .238 in 2019 with a solid .347 on-base percentage and 17 home runs. Maldonado is limited offensively (.213/.293/.378 in 2019) but has a cannon for an arm and won a Gold Glove Award in 2017. He finished 8th in MLB last season in Defensive Runs Saved (8) among all catchers. Chirinos (3) tied for 20th and has built great rapport with 2019 AL Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander. 

The Astros could look to bring Chirinos and/or Maldonado this offseason. Neither will command long-term deals on the open market and they don't come with expensive price tags. The tandem worked well for the Astros in 2019, but they could stabilize the position for the future by acquiring someone like Contreras. He’s only 27 —younger than Chirinos (35) and Maldonado (33) — and is one of the top offensive catchers in baseball. Contreras also has a cannon, but his defense (-1 DRS in 2019) and pitch-framing are works in progress.

Contreras has plenty of value for the Cubs, so they won't just trade him for the sake of doing so. The return package would have to be sufficient, whether it includes prospects, big league players or both. And as a reminder, trade rumors are referred to as such for a reason. One shouldn't overreact every time a Cubs player pops up in a report.

"The nature of any offseason, there are gonna be rumors about your major-league players and even your best players and that doesn't necessarily mean they're true," Cubs president Theo Epstein said at last month's GM Meetings. "No one knows how this winter's going to evolve. Even us. We have no idea who will be available for us, so I think taking any name that comes up in a trade rumor with a mouthful of salt is appropriate — not just a grain because I think they're usually untrue."

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Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

Cubs 'open-minded' on where Nico Hoerner fits in 2020 equation

The MLB offseason is a month old, but we still don't have any clear answers on what the 2020 Cubs roster will look like.

So much of that depends on the trade market and who Theo Epstein's front office deals away and what they get in return. 

One of the other major contributing factors is Nico Hoerner and how the Cubs view him. Will the impressive rookie make the Opening Day roster? Will he see more work at second base or center field or both? 

At some point next year, it seems likely Hoerner will be the everyday second baseman with Javy Baez manning shortstop. That path was made simpler when the Cubs parted ways with Addison Russell earlier this week. 

But will the Cubs want Hoerner to start the year in Triple-A Iowa — a level he skipped over in September when he was tasked with filling in for the injured Baez — to continue his development?

"It's a great question and I don't think one that I can answer that well right now," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last month. "All I can say is that his timetable obviously was faster than we ever expected being in a pennant race and necessity of Javy going down and Addy going down, it sort of forced our hand to do that. And Dixon Machado was injured. We put Nico in a really challenging spot and he couldn't have responded better. His makeup, competitiveness is fantastic; his poise was really impressive. 

"Clearly he exceeded our expectations in that spot. What that means going forward, I can't answer at this point. But I think it's safe to say we hold him in incredibly high regard and whatever number of games in September that he played in — I'm still incredibly impressed that he can go from being at home to starting the next night and performing the way he did."

The 22-year-old former first-round pick hit .282 with 3 homers and 17 RBI in his first 20 big-league games while playing solid defense at shortstop and earning praise from veterans in the clubhouse for his energy, work ethic and the spark he provided the team down the stretch. 

If Hoerner was a shoo-in to make the Opening Day roster, that would change the equation for the Cubs this winter as they look to build their 26-man squad. But 20 games isn't a huge sample size and he may well need more time down in the minor leagues to refine his offensive approach and defensive versatility.

"We haven't figured that out yet," Epstein said at the GM Meetings. "I think you could make strong arguments on both sides, whether he should be part of the club on Opening Day or a little bit more seasoning [in the minors]. I think a lot will depend on what else we do and yeah, sure, what type of spring training you have might be a factor as well. We're not at the point where we're ready to make that decision yet, but we're open-minded."

As it stands right now, the Cubs' position player group is pretty locked down everywhere but second base and center field. Barring a trade that opens up another hole on the roster, those are the two spots Epstein's front office will look to upgrade this winter after subpar production in 2019. If they felt confident enough in Hoerner to pencil him in as the starting second baseman, that would erase a need and allow the front office to focus on outfield and the pitching staff.

Hoerner might also be a factor in the center field equation. He got some work there in the minors last season and started a game in center on the final weekend of the MLB season in St. Louis.

The Cubs still have Albert Almora Jr. and Ian Happ on the roster to play center field and they can also shift Jason Heyward over there if there's a corner outfielder that makes sense to add this winter. 

At second base, there's still a long list of names even after Russell's departure — David Bote, Daniel Descalso, Tony Kemp, Robel Garcia and maybe even Happ could be in the second base picture. 

Hoerner has the most upside out of that group (the Cubs don't view Happ's long-term position on the infield), but the rookie is also currently the top backup to Baez at shortstop and figures to play multiple positions under new manager David Ross.

"He needs more reps," Hoyer said. "Obviously there's rough edges that we can smooth out there, but the fact that he's willing to [play multiple positions] says a lot about who he is as a competitor. I think he has a chance to be good at one position, but he also has a chance to move around the diamond and really help us in a lot of ways that way, too.

"He's not a finished product and defensively, he'll continue to get better and better. Defense in the big leagues is something that keeps improving with instruction and reps. But I thought he handled himself really well."

Offensively, Hoerner is exactly the type of hitter the Cubs are looking for as they attempt to diversify the lineup. He is contact-oriented with elite hand-eye coordination and an ability to battle with two strikes and put the ball in play. Hoerner also uses the whole field and has a line-drive approach — skills that should help an offense that has too often been all-or-nothing the last couple seasons.

That all adds up to Hoerner slotting in as an important long-term piece of the puzzle and the Cubs eventually handing him the keys to an everyday role, though that might not be from Day 1 of the 2020 season.