The interaction might not sound like a big deal. But for Ian Happ, the way Jason Heyward acknowledged the center fielder’s instructions meant something.
“Him looking back at me and giving me affirmation that he’s OK being moved, Happ said when asked what he took from working alongside Heyward, “what that does for me and my confidence.”
A five-time Gold Glove winner trusted Happ’s judgement.
That dynamic was part of what helped the Cubs starting outfielders create, as Happ put it, “a ton of chemistry” this year.
The future of the Cubs’ championship core is uncertain, but its outfield – at least right and center field – could provide some continuity as the Cubs enter what president of baseball operations Theo Epstein called, “a period of real transition.”
Heyward, who has three years remaining on his contract, has accrued 10-and-5 rights, giving him the power to veto any trade proposals involving him. Happ, who the Cubs drafted in 2015, isn’t set to hit free agency until 2024. Plus, his development over the past two seasons suggests that he still has room to continue growing.
Heyward and Happ also were the Cubs’ best hitters this year, leading the team in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging.
Kyle Schwarber could be the outlier. He, like Javier Báez and Kris Bryant, is arbitration-eligible this upcoming season, with free agency looming in 2022. If the Cubs pick up Anthony Rizzo’s 2021 team option, as they’re expected to, the first baseman will be in a similar boat.
“A one-year deal for a really talented player is a valuable thing,” Epstein said in his end-of-season press conference. “And that's to our benefit, both with what we can do in constructing the 2021 team and having an additional year of control on certain players, and also potentially to our benefit in the trade market or as we look to make some changes.”
Especially after a year in which he struggled at the plate, however, Schwarber and his upbeat clubhouse presence may be more valuable to the Cubs than any potential trade partners this offseason.
So, the trio that made history with two home runs apiece at Cincinnati a month and a half ago, could still be in tact come Spring Training.
“Playing every day with Schwarber and Jason next to me,” Happ said in his last postgame press conference of the season, “I told those guys in the clubhouse, that’s the most fun I’ve had playing baseball in a really long time.”
On paper, it’s not obvious that their dynamic would work. In right field, the Cubs had a Gold Glover in Heyward. In center, Happ won an everyday starting spot after spending much of the 2019 season back down in Triple-A. Schwarber held onto his spot in left field, despite calls from fans and some media members to make him a designated hitter.
Heyward was undisputedly the best outfielder, and he and Happ talked about positioning between innings and after games. But the center fielder traditionally serves as the outfield’s captain. And when Happ had a gut feeling, or a situation arose that he and Cubs third base coach Will Venable had talked about, Heyward would follow Happ’s directions.
“Him having to stay the course,” Heyward said of Happ, “be sent down, have some things go not necessarily his way, have some success and grind through it, it did a lot for this ball club, and I let him know that was special.”
As for trusting Happ in center field, Heyward said, “that was a pleasure.”