Chicago Cubs

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.”

What really happened between Jon Lester and Chris Bosio

What really happened between Jon Lester and Chris Bosio

What really happened between Jon Lester and Chris Bosio?

After Lester's early exit from Thursday's game against the Cincinnati Reds, cameras caught the Cubs southpaw appearing to have a confrontation in the home dugout with Bosio, the team's pitching coach.

CSN's David Kaplan did some investigating and said Friday on his morning radio show on ESPN 1000 that Lester was expressing frustration with the Cubs defense. It was not directed to Bosio.

The Cubs were trailing 8-0 in the second inning when Lester left the game with left lat tightness. The Reds eventually tacked on another run to make it 9-0. It was a frustrating inning — to say the least — for the Cubs, who eventually erased the nine-run deficit but failed to complete the comeback in a 13-10 loss.

Kaplan also said an update on Lester should come some time Friday morning, but he isn't expected to miss a serious amount of time. He will likely land on the disabled list, though.

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

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USA TODAY

Once again, Javier Baez will be a huge X-factor for Cubs down the stretch

Javier Baez flicked his bat and watched the ball rocket in the direction of Waveland Avenue, the last of the back-to-back-to-back homers against Cincinnati Reds starter/Cubs trivia answer Scott Feldman.

That quick strike came during a four-homer fourth inning on Thursday afternoon at Wrigley Field, where the offense looked explosive and the pitching looked combustible in a 13-10 loss that left the Milwaukee Brewers one game out of first place, the St. Louis Cardinals right behind them and the Cubs awaiting a diagnosis on Jon Lester’s lat injury.

“I know the talent we got,” Baez said. “When they come to play a team like us, we know they’re going to come play hard and obviously play good baseball. They’re going to come to compete, and that’s what we got to do.”

Whatever happens from here – the Cubs are 2-2 so far during a 13-game stretch against last-place teams – you know Baez will be in the middle of the action as the No. 8 hitter with 19 homers this season and a power source with Willson Contreras (strained right hamstring) injured.

This is the starting shortstop until Addison Russell (strained right foot/plantar fasciitis) comes off the disabled list and the unique talent you couldn’t take your eyes off during last year’s playoffs.

“He’s not afraid of anything,” manager Joe Maddon said. “So I don’t care how big or small the game is, he’s going to play the same way. He’s going to do everything pretty much full gorilla all the time.

“Sometimes, he’s going to make a mistake. And that’s OK, because with certain people – with all of us – you got to take the bad with the good. Everybody wants perfection. He’s going to make some mistakes. But most of the time, he’s going to pull off events.”

The night before against the Reds, Baez led off the ninth inning with a line-drive double and scored the game-winning run on a wild pitch. Last week, Statcast clocked him at 16.11 seconds for his inside-the-park homer off the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park. Over the weekend, he launched another home-run ball 463 feet against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field.

There are so many different ways Baez can help the Cubs win a game at a time when they don’t have anywhere close to the same margin for error that they did during last season’s joyride into the playoffs.

“I know we often talk about the strikeouts or the big swings,” Maddon said. “But look at his two-strike numbers. Look at his OPS (.808). Look at the run production in general (his 55 RBI match Kris Bryant). It’s been outstanding. And you combine that with first-rate defense.

“Now he’s going to make some mistakes. I’ve talked about that. That’s going to go away with just experience. As he gets older, plays more often, he’s going to make less of those routine mistakes. And the game’s going to get really clean and sharp.”

Until then, Baez will keep taking huge swings, making spectacular plays and trying to cut down on the errors (10 in 334 innings at shortstop, or one less than Russell through 729 innings), because he knows what he means to this team.  

“Javy’s very important,” pitcher Jake Arrieta said. “He’s one of our best defensive players, one of our most athletic players on the team.

“Javy’s got a really big swing, but he’s got a great eye and he handles the bat really well. For as big as his swing is, he still manages to make really good contact. I don’t want him to approach the game any other way than he does right now.”