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.