Cubs

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

While Cubs offense struggles, Ian Happ continues his development in Triple-A

A little bit of Backup Quarterback Syndrome surrounds the Cubs right now.

Just like with the Bears when the starting quarterback isn't playing well, the backup QB often becomes the most popular guy in town.

So with Daniel Descalso, Addison Russell, Albert Almora Jr. and Carlos Gonzalez struggling of late, many fans are wondering where Ian Happ is and why the Cubs haven't called him back up from Triple-A Iowa.

That quartet of players is slashing a combined .180/.269/.245 (.514 OPS) in June with a 28 percent strikeout rate and only 2 homers and 12 RBI over 160 plate appearances. 

But the Cubs didn't send Happ down to the minors because of Almora, Descalso or even Russell. The organization felt he needed to make some adjustments with his swing and offensive approach — namely from the left side of the plate. 

In a perfect scenario, Happ would cut down on strikeouts without losing any of the power that has led him to hit 39 homers in 751 at-bats during his first two big-league seasons. 

However, it hasn't quite worked out that way, as the 24-year-old switch-hitter is hitting just .225 with a .347 on-base percentage and .399 slugging percentage in 72 games for Iowa. He does have 45 walks, but also 85 strikeouts and only 23 extra-base hits (11 homers). 

Even more concerning is much of that damage has come from the right side of the plate (.803 OPS, 4 homers) while he's struggled as a left-handed batter (.207 AVG, .721 OPS, only 7 HRs in 169 at-bats).

Happ's progress also hasn't exactly been linear. His OPS by month:

April: .741
May: .806
June: .667

"I think from a development stage, it's good," Cubs GM Jed Hoyer said last week. "He's been swinging the bat well from the right side. Still working on things from the left side that he's been working on since spring training. But the attitude is fantastic. He's working hard. 

"It just feels like a matter of time until he goes on a run and gets back to where he was before. We're kinda waiting on that a little bit — he's waiting on that. But given the work he's done and where he is mentally, I think that's just a matter of time."

Iowa manager Marty Pevey raved about Happ's work ethic and attitude, but also acknowledged that it hasn't yet clicked for the young switch-hitter and that can be frustrating and difficult to maintain the right mental approach.

Happ admitted that frustration — especially early on — in a conversation with The Athletic's Sahadev Sharma last week

But those around Happ in the Cubs organization haven't lost any faith in him.

"He's 24 years old," Pevey said. "He would almost be the youngest guy on the big-league team still. ... He's got so much talent. When the light comes back on for him and stays on, he's gonna be able to help the big club for a long, long time."

In spring training, the plan was for Happ to play both second base and outfield. But that was before he was demoted, of course.

As he works on his swing, Happ hasn't played second base with Iowa since June 1 and has only started 8 games on the infield this season, spending almost all his time in center field. 

"I think the biggest thing there is we just want him to get his at-bats and not worry about the defensive side of things," Joe Maddon said. "I think that's pretty much it. He can still come in and play second base, but moving it forward, if you could really nail down that swing from the left side and be pertinent in the outfield, that would be the first priority."

Regardless of how those on big-league club is playing or what the roster situation might be, the Cubs are committed to Happ's development and don't want to rush him. 

"The situation with Ian, you really want to make sure that you feel good about that," Maddon said earlier this month. "You don't want to just [call him up] because you think you have to do something like that. You got a young player, still learning his craft and getting better at what he's doing. 

"So you don't want to pull the plug. It's not an experiment, it's a developmental situation — so make sure that that is in place before you actually do bring him back. That's why you sent him there in the first place."

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Cubs not yet considering ways to get Victor Caratini and Willson Contreras in lineup together

Offensive production is very much judged in a "what have you done for me lately" manner.

And by that measure, the Cubs offense is just fine and there's no need to tinker.

However, overall, this lineup has weaknesses, including second base (Cubs rank 21st in MLB with .675 OPS from their second basemen) and center field (19th in MLB with .698 OPS). Before the trade deadline hits, it seems apparent Theo Epstein's front office will add another hitter of some sort to augment this offense. 

But what if the Cubs had an in-house solution?

Victor Caratini had another big game Sunday — going 2-for-3 with a sacrifice fly RBI and his only out was a 109.1 mph liner to left field — and is now hitting .301 on the season with a .383 on-base percentage and .505 slugging percentage.

Caratini wasn't initially scheduled to be in the Cubs lineup Sunday, but with Willson Contreras nursing a sore foot, he got the call and continued to do what he's done all year — play very solid defense behind the plate with quality production at the dish. 

Between Caratini's emergence this season and Contreras' huge bounceback year, Cubs catchers are pacing baseball in OPS, average, OBP, SLG, runs and RBI and rank second in homers and hits.

So with Contreras' ability to play the outfield, will the Cubs try to find ways to get both Caratini and Contreras in the starting lineup at the same time in search of more consistent offense?

"We haven't talked about that," Cubs manager Joe Maddon said after Sunday's game. "We have a lot of guys who have to be in the lineup when things are rolling properly. I haven't looked at that right now, honestly."

Maddon conceded that as a switch-hitter, Caratini is still utilized almost exclusively as a left-handed hitter. The second-year player is hitting .556 with a homer and a double from the right side this season, but that's come in only 10 plate appearances.

Maddon also admitted the best way to get both catchers in the lineup at the same time is if there's an injury or a natural day off for a regular player. For example, Contreras played a game in right field in Pittsburgh before the All-Star Break while Caratini started behind the plate with both Kris Bryant and Jason Heyward nursing minor injuries.

Caratini has also drawn some starts at first base over the last couple years when Anthony Rizzo is either ailing or getting a day off. 

But beyond that, it doesn't appear as if we're gonna see Contreras and Caratini as cohorts in the starting lineup on even a semi-regular basis.

"Maybe part of the reason they're both playing so well or Victor's hitting as well as he is or playing as well as he is is based on the amount of usage," Maddon said. "Everybody sees a guy do well and all of a sudden, that immediately indicates he should play more often. Maybe just playing the right amount."

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

Jose Quintana delivers as Cubs sweep Pirates: 'He doesn't get enough credit'

The Cubs have made a trademark out of having a strong second half, and after beating the Pirates 8-3 Sunday, they completed the sweep in their first series since the all-star break and look on their way to putting more space in the NL Central between themselves and the other four teams.

But through the first three innings, the Cubs and starter Jose Quintana looked more like they were going to let the third game of this series get away.

Quintana held the Pirates scoreless in the first two innings, but then in the third he gave up three consecutive singles, threw a wild pitch, allowed a sacrifice fly, and gave up a double, undoing the 1-0 lead the Cubs had established in the second inning on Robel Garcia's double.

But the difference in Sunday's game was how Quintana pitched after that. He tossed three more scoreless innings, completing a 90-pitch quality start and even contributed an RBI single in the fourth.

"He always goes out there and he competes. He’s so focused," Kris Bryant said of Quintana after the game. "He doesn’t get enough credit for what he does."

Leading up to Quintana's single, Garcia hit a two-out double and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle opted to walk David Bote to get Quintana to the plate for what seemed like a sure out. Instead, Quintana poked Trevor Williams' four-seam fastball to right field, allowing Garcia to score from second and trim Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2.

Quintana had already thrown a scoreless top of the fourth inning, but he gave two more after his RBI single. The hit was a timely confidence boost.

"Felt great, finally to get the base hit," Quintana said. "So excited."

This was Quintana's fifth career RBI and first since 2017, and it may have helped catapult the rest of the offense. The Cubs would score three more runs in the fifth inning to take the lead, and then added some cushion with another three in the sixth.

"Literally, when Q got that hit, Tony goes, 'homer right here,'" Jason Heyward joked after the game.

It wasn't Quintana who got the home run, but Heyward was the one to give the Cubs the lead with his own two-run homer in the fifth after Victor Caratini's sacrifice fly had scored Bryant to tie the game earlier that inning.

"We have fun with that," Heyward said of Rizzo's joking. "But we pull for them obviously because they’re out there pitching their ass off. They want to keep the game close, and sometimes they need to pick themselves up too."

Quintana's last three innings on the mound kept his team in the game. He started the fourth with a walk to Elias Diaz and then did not allow another baserunner until Corey Dickerson's one-out single in the sixth.

"I kept throwing my pitches and believing in my stuff and waiting for our offense to come back in the game, and they did really well," Quintana said. "Always in my mind was they can take more runs, so I wanted to keep it there and wait for our hitters to get back in the game. They did great work. It’s a really good feeling around us right now."

One of the keys to a strong second half for the Cubs is getting more wins like Sunday's. Bryant said after the game that it's important to get a few wins that you shouldn't, like one when the team is down 3-1 halfway through the game. And especially in the last game of a three-game set where the Cubs had already won the first two. With the series win safely secured, it would be easy to let up and drop the final game, but Quintana's timely hit and good pitching in the second half of his outing helped make the difference.

"As soon as he hits his knock, he pitched really well after that," Joe Maddon said. "He got better after the knock."

Quintana might struggle to live up to the expectations of coming from across town in a trade two years ago that cost two darling prospects, but it's worth noting that the average ERA in the National League is 4.39, and after Sunday's win, Quintana's is down to 4.21. If he's the team's back-of-the-rotation starter, that'll do just fine.

He's very capable of stringing together quality starts and pitching like the team's ace, like he has over his last three outings with three straight quality starts, but there are also stretches like his run from May 26 to June 22 where he lost six starts in a row and his ERA climbed from 3.73 to 4.50.

Either way, if Quintana makes more of his starts like Sunday's, the Cubs are in very good position to continue their yearly trend of winning in the second half of the season.

 

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