At this point, maybe the highest compliment a Cubs official could give a prospect would be to compare his mental makeup to that of Kyle Schwarber’s.
The Legend of Schwarber has grown to the levels of Greek mythology with the way he came back from a devastating knee injury to emerge as a hero in the World Series.
So it’s natural Cubs fans would want to know who in the farm system is the next Schwarber in terms of mental toughness and makeup.
When posed that question at the Cubs Convention earlier this month, director of player development Jaron Madison pointed to Ian Happ, the Cubs’ first round pick (ninth overall) in 2015.
Happ was drafted the year after Schwarber and fit the same mold as “America’s large adult son” — an advanced college bat with a refined approach at the plate and no set position in the field.
And like Schwarber’s drive to stick at catcher, Happ insists he can stay at second base and is not just an outfielder.
When the Cubs sent Happ to short-season Eugene after he signed following the draft, Madison told Happ and the coaches the young player was going to play outfield only. But when Happ showed up, he told the coaches he was strictly a second baseman.
Of course, the Cubs front office won out and Happ only appeared in the outfield in 2015, but when he returned for Instructional League, Madison and the Cubs allowed him an opportunity to prove his worth in the infield.
“He was a different guy when he came back in Instructional League and we let him work at second base,” Madison said. “He opened up; he was a completely different personality. His conviction and dedication to trying to get good at second base is special.
“It’s the same thing you saw with Schwarber. It’s the same thing you saw with [Kris] Bryant and all the questions about what position he was gonna play coming up once he got to the big leagues.
“Those guys work hard and they’re determined that’s where they’re going to play and Ian has that conviction.”
Happ appeared in 134 games in 2016 between Advanced Class-A Myrtle Beach and Double-A Tennessee, playing 92 games at second base and only 23 in the outfield.
Happ’s success in 2016 — which included a .279/.365/.445 slash line — was enough to earn him the consensus No. 2 prospect in the Cubs system (behind outfielder Eloy Jimenez) and also the third best second base prospect in the game by MLB.com behind new White Sox phenom Yoan Moncada and Ozzie Albies of the Atlanta Braves.
“With Ian, he went out and had such great success early when he was in Myrtle, which we expected,” Cubs director of amateur scouting Matt Dorey said. “He was such an advanced college hitter coming out of the draft that year and we felt the most important thing for Ian was to really allow him the opportunity to settle in at one position defensively.
“All through college, he played shortstop, center field. That’s one of the things we liked about him — his versatility. But at the same time, we thought it was in his best interest to settle in in his first full season in the minor leagues to really sink his teeth in on one position, feel comfortable and really get into a good routine.”
The Cubs still want Happ to work in the outfield in an effort to fine-tune his versatility before making it to the big leagues.
Joe Maddon loves moving players all around the diamond and the Cubs already have a quandry at second base between Javy Baez and Ben Zobrist.
But even in the outfield, Happ’s road to Chicago appears to be blocked by the Cubs’ stable of young position players, which explains why Happ’s name is often bandied about in trade rumors as the Cubs look for long-term pitching answers.
A big 2017 season would help put Happ on the map even more after wearing out down the stretch last year, finishing with a .231 average and .730 OPS over the final month with Double-A Tennessee.
“Ian had to, for the first time, really learn how to manage his body,” Dorey said. “He was always in really good shape and he took care of himself, but that first experience and taste of a long full season can really beat you up. At the end of the year, he did get a little bit tired and I think we saw that a little bit in the Arizona Fall League.
“Just hearing some of the feedback from the instructors, the strength and conditioning guys, he really embraced that challenge coming into 2017. We’re all really excited to see him really develop into the type of player he’s going to be — whether it’s in 2017 on the major-league roster at some point or 2018 moving forward.
“He’s an exciting player; he can do a lot of things on the field. Switch-hitter with power and really controls the zone. We all have high hopes for Ian in the 2017 season.”