Jason McLeod goes inside the Ian Happ/Andrew Benintendi draft

Jason McLeod goes inside the Ian Happ/Andrew Benintendi draft

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.”

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Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

Kris Bryant ignites World Series nostalgia with Cubs' epic eighth-inning comeback

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series.”

Kris Bryant wasn’t the only one with World Series nostalgia Saturday afternoon at the Friendly Confines. The tens of thousands of Cubs fans losing their minds over the North Siders’ eighth-inning comeback made that very clear.

Bryant, though, was the one who provided it, first driving in the game-tying run mere moments after the visiting St. Louis Cardinals smashed open a pitchers duel with back-to-back homers off Jon Lester in the top of the eighth. Bryant then got a head starts and came around all the way from first, scoring the game-winning run on a ball Anthony Rizzo dumped into the left-center field gap so perfectly he couldn’t have thrown it there any better.

Bryant slid in — feet first — beating the throw home from ex-teammate Dexter Fowler. Cue the hysteria at Clark and Addison.

“Me, honestly, I was just trying to go up the middle. I think that’s kind of where I’ve been struggling this year is with guys on base I want to do too much. Just seeing through the middle. Bat broke and flew, I don’t know where it went, but it flew somewhere. That was huge,” Bryant explained after the game.

“And then obviously with Rizz having a good at-bat off a tough lefty. I don't know if Dexter or Tommy Pham got a good read or if they were way back at the track, but right when he hit it I didn’t see them anywhere close to it so I thought there was a pretty good chance that I could score.”

Bryant’s very presence in the Cubs’ starting lineup was the headline before the game, the “freak of nature” returning from a jammed finger after missing only one game. So of course it was the reigning National League MVP who played the biggest role, flipping the script from his sick day by being right in the middle of the Cubs’ eighth-inning explosion. It was the eighth inning where the Cardinals staged their game-defining rally Friday.

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Manager Joe Maddon went as far as saying that perhaps only Bryant could have made the play he did, scoring from first base on what went down as a Rizzo double.

“KB being able to play was the difference in today’s game,” Maddon said. “A combination of the hit and his speed. I don’t think anybody else scores on that. Maybe Jason (Heyward), possibly. (Ian) Happ, possibly. But KB is such a good base runner. He had it in his head the moment the ball was hit, and all (third base coach Gary) Jones had to do was wave his arm. You can’t underestimate the importance of one person in the lineup.

“He’s a very bright base runner. He’s shown that from the beginning. … He demonstrated that early on, and for me when a young player demonstrates awareness on the bases, man, that’s a good baseball player.”

All that talent made Bryant last season’s Most Valuable Player and one of the most important figures in the curse-breaking World Series championship.

Bryant mentioned he thought Saturday’s game-winning trip from first to home conjured memories of a similar play in Game 7 of last fall’s World Series, when Bryant went first to home on Rizzo’s base hit off Andrew Miller in the fifth inning.

“Reminded me a lot of a play in the World Series off of Andrew Miller. It was a full count there, started early,” Bryant said. “Rizz hit it, you’ve got to give him a ton of credit, worked a great at-bat. But the head start really does help. It's something that I take pride in is my base running, surprising people. Hopefully I did that today.”

With Bryant back in the lineup Saturday, Kyle Hendricks’ return to the rotation coming Monday, a now 7-1 record since the All-Star break and a bunched-up NL Central that had four teams within three and a half games of each other entering Saturday’s action, it’s no wonder the World Series feeling is making its way back to the North Side.

All season long, fans and observers have been waiting for that switch to flip, and maybe it finally has.

The bats were thunderous on that six-game road trip out of the All-Star break, with 16 home runs helping the Cubs to back-to-back sweeps of the Baltimore Orioles and Atlanta Braves. Friday’s loss to the Cardinals provided plenty of evidence that the rest of the season might feature a knock-down, drag-out slugfest between the four NL Central contenders. All that was missing was a game that got Wrigleyville rocking.

“Probably one of our better wins of the year,” Bryant said.

That’s all without even mentioning the efforts of Lester, who was perfect until Adam Wainwright’s single in the top of the sixth. It was another stellar effort from a Cubs starting pitcher, and what was the team’s biggest problem during that sub-.500 first half — inconsistent starting pitching — certainly seems to be ironed out.

While the standings say it’s still going to be a brawl to the end with the Cardinals, Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates, the Cubs could be in a first-place tie by the end of Saturday night.

In other words, the race is on. And Bryant and the Cubs are clicking at the right time.

“It’s already Jaugust,” Maddon joked, inventing a new month out of thin air. “There’s no waiting around right now. Everybody feels the same way. We took advantage of the break, I believe. We came back with renewed energy. You don’t want to give up anything right now.”