May 15, 2017
The Situation: The World’s Champion Chicago Cubs have been besieged by injuries to key hitters, including Kris Bryant, Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward and Addison Russell. The injuries have mostly been minor, but they ran out of functional position players on the 40-man roster to call-up over the weekend. Instead of calling up an organizational player to cover the emergency, the Cubs decided to use the opportunity to break in their top hitting prospect, Ian Happ.
Background: The Cubs drafted Happ ninth overall from the University of Cincinnati in 2015, the last of the series of top-10 picks they accumulated during the Epstein/Hoyer rebuilding period. Happ played all over the diamond in college, and given that he’s a polished switch-hitter, Zobrist comps started long before they ended up with the same employer. The Cubs kept Happ exclusively in the outfield for his pro debut in 2015, but shifted him to primarily play at second base in 2016. Happ breezed through the minors, playing well but not dominating any level until he reached Triple A after camp this year. He ranked as the 67th-best prospect in baseball before 2016 and the 54th-best prospect before this season.
Scouting: You’ll hear the word polished over and over and over again with Ian Happ. It’s both a positive and an implied negative. Happ has a total set of offensive tools that project all as above-average but not standout, and he combines them with a very advanced plate approach and great reports about makeup and those sorts of intangibles. He does lack an obvious star-making tool, and while he has above-average hit and power potential, his swing from both sides is just long enough that one could hedge a little against guaranteeing that kind of outcome. Happ has had a power breakout early this season in Triple A, though your usual small sample and PCL caveats apply. He’s probably no more than a fringe-average defender at second base or center field, but he can play them without embarrassing himself, and the Cubs are probably the best team in baseball at creating value out of these fringe extra positions.
You’ll also hear the name “Ben Zobrist” with Happ. It’s not a bad comp if you’re talking about Cubs-era Zobrist, who is still a fine hitter who can handle second and the corner outfield spots as needed. It’s a moon-shot comp if you’re talking about the jack-of-all-trades superstar Ben Zobrist who could give you average-or-better defense literally anywhere on the diamond except pitcher or catcher in his prime. Zobrist played over 1,700 innings at shortstop in his career, for example, and played the position well enough that he probably could’ve been a regular there; Happ might not even handle second well enough for regular duty. Happ’s still a heck of a prospect, but if you’re looking for the next Ben Zobrist...well, the Cubs have Javier Baez already, actually.