As the Cubs start their 2019 campaign on Thursday, I’m reminded that part of the attraction to sports is the drama. The physical challenges. The uncertainty of outcome. The complementary or clashing personalities. The mental struggles against unchanging physics and ever-adapting opponents.
To certain degrees, all four were on display Saturday when the Cubs demoted Ian Happ. The merits for the demotion are inarguable, yet the move shocked everyone because of this front office’s Pygmalion faith in their rapid promotion program for every first-round college bat they draft.
I say the demotion merits are inarguable because anyone who went on a Kool-Aid cleanse last year recognized Happ’s shortcomings. He’s supposedly the fastest player on the team, but isn’t a big stolen-base threat. He’s a versatile, athletic defender who doesn’t offer a plus glove at any position. Thus it all came down to whether that bat will hit, and it didn’t connect enough.
Sheer optimism marked most of Happ’s 2018 campaign. If not for his leadoff homer on Opening Day, it was a uniformly mediocre sophomore season. He started the first 10 games hitting .156 with a .459 OPS and a 51 percent K rate. For more than a month of games from May 19 to June 22, he hit .162 with a .661 OPS and a 35 percent K rate. Then he finished the final two months hitting .189 with a .631 OPS and a 38 percent K rate
And even when he was hot, it’s not as though he was en fuego. Ten of his 15 homers came with the bases empty. And by OPS, his best month last year came in May, when he posted a .981 OPS. But this came against a .226 batting average. If not for his five homers and a 21 percent walk rate that month, he and his all-or-nothing uppercut had no legitimate argument for staying lineup of a contending team.
Given the huge holes in Happ’s strike zone, one wonders why so many pitchers nibbled at the edges against him. But as last season progressed, fewer pitchers did so and his walk rate glided down from 21 percent to 9.5 in August, before a small uptick in September.
And against power pitchers, the Cubs’ collective Achilles heel, he was a fair disaster. Last year he hit just .200 with a 52 percent K rate, which actually represented a small improvement over a rookie season in which he hit .183 against such pitchers.
But apparently rebounding from his .172 August with a .214 in September was enough to give Cubs brass hope for the future and not seriously consider packaging him in a winter deal or sign Andrew McCutcheon for outfield over picking up Cole Hamels’ ledger-closing $20 million option.
Some have interpreted Happ’s demotion as a sign that the front office is serious about prioritizing production over talent. But I say trading and demoting the two position players at the end of your bench – Tommy La Stella being the other – doesn’t really send a major message to your core.
Corey Freedman and Brendan Miller had a great discussion at the start of their most recent Cubs Related podcast about what this latest move means in terms of the front office’s powers of evaluation and planning. It’s well worth a listen.
After all, the Cubs now essentially have three outfielders. That’s Jason Heyward, Kyle Schwarber and Albert Almora Jr. – plus Ben Zobrist at times and Mark Zagunis until Addison Russell comes off suspension. Clearly, members of the Cubs brass were planning on Happ being something this year that he has yet to be.
Yes, his 24 homers and high walk rate as a rookie tantalized, but in two years, he has posted a monthly batting average over .270 just once (.271 in June 2017). This is a player who needs a lot more seasoning. Like Schwarber before him, Happ was rushed through the minor league system based more on the organization’s faith in its predictive talents than superior results.
In fact, before starting the season at Iowa, he had never had a batting over .300 or an OPS over .900, the simplest measurements of mastery of a minor league level. And yet the Cubs marched him up through four successive levels. To Happ’s credit, his numbers in 2017 at Iowa and in Chicago were better than anything anyone could have expected.
Of course, Happ’s demotion doesn’t mean an end to either his Cubs or baseball careers. Everyone seems to believe in the talent and one hopes he is able to make the necessary adjustments to come back better than before on several different levels.
But Saturday’s news was certainly dramatic and the way it peeled back the bandage on this quizzical offseason wasn’t necessarily pleasant. So let the real games begin.