Positional flexibility has been a hallmark of Joe Maddon’s Cubs teams, so it’s not uncommon to see players moving around the field from game to game or even inning to inning. Hell, most of the players have multiple gloves at the ready in case they need to swap between batters.
And while it’d be wrong to confuse them with the Brewers, who employ approximately 18 second baseman and plan to play Mike Moustakas there in 2019, the Cubs do have a lot of middle infielders. Javy Baez, Daniel Descalso, David Bote, and Addison Russell (if and when he comes back) can all handle at least two spots. Ben Zobrist can play all over and nearly won a Gold Glove at second a couple years ago, but the depth there lends to speculation that has cropped up in light of his absence from camp.
One player who hasn’t really been in the mix at second is Ian Happ, something the Cubs have been very intentional about from the moment he entered the organization. After drafting him in 2015, they told Happ they were going to utilize him more in the outfield and that he’d play there exclusively that first season.
So like any young player intent on impressing his new organization with strict obedience and a willingness to comply, Happ showed up in Eugene and told the coaches he was a second baseman. Unfortunately for him, the Emeralds had already been informed of the plan. So he manned center field for 248 innings and remained in the grass for another 281.2 innings following a promotion to South Bend.
Things did shift back the next season, as Happ spent nearly 80 percent of the time playing second. It was clear, however, that the Cubs were grooming him to play all over. Almost 89 percent of Happ’s innings at high-A Myrtle Beach came at second, with the remainder spent in left. His time at second dropped to 71.5 percent at Double-A Tennessee, while he got relatively significant run at all three outfield spots.
Happ’s second-base percentage was down under 62 at Triple-A Iowa in 2017 and was slashed nearly in half (32 percent) upon his promotion to Chicago. For the first time since his initial pro campaign, Happ was once again primarily an outfielder. And a vast majority of those innings came in center, a trend that continued this past season.
In fact, Happ played only 3 innings at second base in 2018, fewer than he logged at all of five other spots on the field. That included first base, where the 14 innings he played were his first experience there as a pro, and third base, where his 113 innings represented nearly a seven-fold increase over his previous career total (all of which came with the Cubs in 2017). Again, the Cubs were very much telling Happ he was no longer a second baseman.
Thing is, he’s not a very good listener. Like, to the point that he reminds me of my son, who has forgotten every “No” answer I’ve given him within three seconds of the word leaving my mouth. And as the folks in Mesa, Happ’s still angling to swap that big outfield glove for a much smaller second base model.
“He made it clear to me that he wants to be considered to play second,” Joe Maddon told MLB.com’s Jordan Bastian. “He’s looking to get in the lineup. He wants for me and us to know that he’ll do whatever it takes to get in the lineup.”
Of course, wanting something and being afforded the opportunity to do it are two different things. And given the number of other players on the roster who need their own playing time, it’s not as though there’s a big hole on the right side. Further complicating matters is Kris Bryant’s return to health, which takes away a good deal of space for Bote. Happ too, when you figure he got 12 starts and played in 20 games at the hot corner last year.
But perhaps more important than actually seeing a big increase in his time on the infield is Happ feeling comfortable enough to ask for it. Beyond that, he’s requesting that he be deployed in a more consistent manner, or at least that he be given more preparation heading into the season.
“Joe and I, we were in communication this offseason, which was good,” Happ explained to the media. “We had some really good candid conversations, where I was able to say, ‘Look, I would like to be considered for this. I’d like some time there,’ because last Spring Training I played all center field and then you kind of get to the season and it’s like, ‘Well, now I have to be able to play them all.’
“So, yeah, that was my goal this spring. Come in, play a bunch of different positions to really prepare myself for what I’m going to be doing [during] the season.”
And though it’s impossible to know for certain, it’s perhaps fair to wonder whether the shift in his positional deployment had an affect on his offensive production. The big strikeout numbers clouded what was otherwise a solid season, but Happ’s .329 wOBA and 106 wRC+ — both above league average — were the lowest of his professional career. That could just be the Sophomore Slump or failing to adjust to pitchers.
Or maybe pining away for his old position and not really having that true north really had some sort of psychological impact. One could say the drop in his second-half production indicates otherwise, that it was a matter of too many pitchers reading his book. Then again, the argument could be made that he got lost in the odyssey of the season without his familiar touchstone to come back to.
None of it matters on way or the other, of course, and I’ll admit it’s probably silly to believe a guy had trouble producing at the plate because he wasn’t playing second base as often. But what it comes down to is comfort, both in the field and in the batter’s box. And if Happ can successfully find that, he’ll be better able to translate some of his adjustments into more meaningful results.