Imagine Andrew Benintendi — “Freddy Lynn reincarnated” in Joe Maddon’s mind — flying all over Wrigley Field and hitting in a lineup that already included Kyle Schwarber, Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell all under club control through the 2021 season.
Two names stood out at the top of the draft board on June 8, 2015, the Cubs targeting their favorite demographic — college hitters — with the ninth overall pick: Benintendi and Ian Happ.
A Boston Red Sox scouting department with deep connections to Theo Epstein and Jason McLeod came at the No. 7 pick with a similar philosophy. Where one fast-track player hit .295 in 34 games for a 93-win team last year — and entered this season as Baseball America’s No. 1 overall prospect — the other is now batting cleanup for the defending World Series champs.
“We obviously liked (Benintendi) quite a bit,” McLeod said on this week’s Cubs Talk Podcast. “We spent a lot of time scouting him as well. Again, going back to that question, did we think (Ian would) be here this fast? (Look at) what (Benintendi’s) done with Boston. Players have recently just kind of switched the timetable a little bit, especially those ultra-talented guys.”
McLeod, the senior vice president who oversees scouting and player development, couldn’t have his staff zero in on one player, the way the Cubs focused so heavily on Bryant (No. 2 overall) and Schwarber (No. 4 overall) in the 2013 and 2014 drafts.
One theory floating around an organization already loaded with hitters wondered if the Cubs would roll the dice with Brady Aiken, who got drafted with the first selection in 2014 but couldn’t reach an agreement with the Houston Astros amid medical concerns.
The Cubs ultimately viewed that as a risky investment where the payoff would maybe take years. Aiken — who had been recovering from Tommy John surgery on his left elbow — got drafted by the Cleveland Indians eight spots after Happ and is now pitching in A-ball.
Instead of dreaming about potential, the Cubs felt far more comfortable projecting Happ’s high-level performance at the University of Cincinnati and as a two-time Cape Cod League All Star. The Cubs would keep collecting young hitters and getting solid returns, knowing that some could be traded for pitching later.
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That draft order would’ve been switched around if the Cubs hadn’t swept a three-game series from the Red Sox in the middle of the 2014 season, as a Boston Globe story detailed during last month’s potential World Series preview. The rebuilding Cubs (73-89) actually finished with a better record than the defending World Series champs (71-91) that year.
“Everything just aligned,” McLeod said. “Obviously, the Red Sox made it easier for us when they took Benintendi with their selection. We had a pretty good sense once that happened that Happ would be our guy.
“I can tell you that once Andrew was taken, those of us in the room felt really good, like: ‘We’re going to get Happ.’ Once he was there for us, we were all excited to bring in this switch-hitter with power and on-base (skills) who was another kind of blue-collar, hard-nosed guy.
“He’s very intense. He has high expectations of himself. We’ve seen that. He’s quieter in the sense that he’s not rah-rah. He’s just very intense about what he wants to get accomplished when he gets to the ballpark that day.”
Happ clearly didn’t spend a lot of time in the minors — 227 games overall and only 26 on the Triple-A level — but he had a sense of purpose and a chip on his shoulder while working on his defense.
“There were questions,” McLeod said. “Not on if he could play defense. I think the conversation with him coming out of the draft that year was: What is his best position? Because he had played infield, he had played outfield. Where would the eventual landing spot be?
“It was more in a positive way. Not: Well, gosh, where can we hide him on the field? It was never anything to do with that. (But) I do feel like he can be an average second baseman in the major leagues. He has enough athleticism, for sure, to be an average outfielder at multiple positions in the outfield.”
Between the home runs, the sliding catches in the outfield and the way he handles himself in the clubhouse, Happ keeps giving the Cubs reasons to not send him back to Iowa. Maddon is already talking up Happ as a Bryant defensive clone and imagining the possibilities.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” McLeod said, “if Joe asks (Ian to do what) he does with Kris. I think that Ian would be able to be a player like that who could go play first base, who could go stand at third, catch what’s hit to him. If you were asking me to pigeonhole him in one spot, I don’t know exactly what that spot is yet, just because he’s been playing a lot of different positions. I think he can be a big-league defender at multiple positions.”