Keeping Ian Happ looks and sounds like an ‘easy’ decision for Cubs manager Joe Maddon

Keeping Ian Happ looks and sounds like an ‘easy’ decision for Cubs manager Joe Maddon

“Is it tough or easy?” is how Joe Maddon responded to a question about Ian Happ making the looming roster decision “tough” on the Cubs.

Maddon rarely shows a different side during his postgame media sessions, but the smirking manager did seem to be in a good mood after Thursday’s 9-5 win swept the Cincinnati Reds out of Wrigley Field. That night, Jason Heyward planned to test his sprained right finger at Class-A South Bend as a final step before getting activated from the disabled list.

This is assuming the Cubs haven’t already decided to keep Happ, who’s gone 6-for-17 with two homers, two doubles, five walks, five runs and four RBI through his first five games in The Show. 

“Of course, we have to have that discussion,” Maddon said. “He’s doing really well and my message to him when he came up was: Why don’t you just stay a while? Just stay as long as you need to or want to.

“We’ll have that conversation when Jason’s well. Hopefully, that turns out good today, and then there’s no reason that Jason has to be back tomorrow. We’ll just wait and see.

“Of course, Ian obviously…does not want to go anywhere.”

Happ’s long-term development isn’t a consideration for Maddon if the Cubs want to weigh more experience at Triple-A Iowa against the chance to contribute to the defending World Series champs in multiple ways.

“No, not at all,” Maddon said. “Just like Javy’s development wasn’t a concern. It just has a way of working itself out.”

While not as spectacular as Javier Baez, Happ is a versatile player who gives an open-minded manager different lineup options and in-game flexibility. Maddon focuses on the 25 guys who will maximize his chances to win that day – and not a prospect putting the finishing touches on his game in Des Moines.

“I’m just staying in the present moment,” Happ said. “My job is to come out here and go play hard and just try to get on base.”

Maddon signaled he liked the idea of keeping an eight-man bullpen, which could force Tommy La Stella back down to Triple-A. Maddon isn’t at all worried about finding at-bats for Happ, a switch-hitter who’s started at all three outfield spots and can play second base and maybe develop into a backup at the corner infield spots.

Maddon sees depth as an essential component to a team that played into early November last year, viewing sports science as a next frontier for the industry.

“There’s still the ability to balance it,” Maddon said. “That’s what we’ve been talking about the whole way – to not get anybody tired early. Look how good ‘Zo’ (Ben Zobrist) looked (Wednesday night). He had a couple days off – his back was a little bit tight – but he looked really refreshed.

“That’s a perfect example of when you give guys a couple consecutive days off and what it can look like. Not everybody can do that. If you don’t have the requisite talent on the bench to permit that to occur, you don’t want to do it. You’re always fighting against it.”

Message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

Message to Cubs is clear: ‘We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut’

MIAMI – Kyle Schwarber’s offensive spiral had gone on for so long and gotten so deep that the shock value of sending a potential franchise player to Triple-A quickly wore off once the news broke on Twitter.

The Cubs sent their message directly to Schwarber. Even if the bosses wanted to, the Cubs couldn’t put the rest of the clubhouse on edge by demoting a .171 hitter with 260-plus plate appearances in late June. 
 
The Cubs are in survival mode, not a position to play mind tricks, beginning an 11-games-in-11-days road trip with World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (left wrist inflammation), Gold Glove outfielder Jason Heyward (left hand abrasion) and Cy Young Award finalist Kyle Hendricks (right hand tendinitis) all on the disabled list.   

Whether or not the big trade for a frontline pitcher happens, there are still five-plus weeks left until teams feel the urgency of a deadline.   

“If something presents itself that makes sense, we’ll certainly jump on it,” general manager Jed Hoyer said over the phone before an 11-1 win at Marlins Park. “But to us, the answers are in that clubhouse. We can’t expect outside help to get us out of this rut. The answers are in there, and we believe in those guys. 

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“Will we be active? No question. But that’s not going to happen for a while and there’s a lot of games to be played between now and July 31.”  

The Cubs (37-35) aren’t booking Schwarber’s trip to Iowa so he can be converted into a pitcher. An aging, stressed rotation remains a much bigger concern than the boom-and-bust periods with a young offense. 

Kris Bryant unleashed an MVP swing when he launched a three-run homer into the left-center field patio deck. All-Star shortstop Addison Russell just missed hitting for the cycle while rookie Ian Happ (this year’s Schwarber) also went 4-for-5. Young catcher Willson Contreras blasted his seventh home run.

More importantly, Jake Arrieta looked more like himself, limiting the Marlins to one run across seven innings.

“Interesting, isn’t it?” manager Joe Maddon said. “The biggest thing for us to really do well is to pitch well, because you can’t anticipate scoring a ton of runs without this group involved. You shouldn’t. That’s a bad assumption on my part. So you probably have to take more chances defensively. Your pitching staff – you really got to try to draw out of them as much as you possibly can.”  

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

Did Cubs start the tailspin by making Kyle Schwarber their leadoff guy?

MIAMI – Everything aligned for the Cubs to make Kyle Schwarber their leadoff hitter. Joe Maddon’s gut instincts told him to do it – so the manager asked the Geek Department to run the numbers – and the projections backed him up. A front office raised on Bill James principles endorsed the idea after Dexter Fowler took an offer he couldn’t refuse – five years and $82.5 million – from the St. Louis Cardinals.
   
It all looked good on paper and sounded reasonable in theory. But by the time the Cubs made the Schwarber-to-Iowa move official before Thursday’s game at Marlins Park, the slugger once compared to Babe Ruth in a pre-draft scouting report had devolved into the qualified hitter with the lowest batting average in the majors (.171) and an .OPS 75 points below the league average.  

If Schwarber had been batting, say, sixth since Opening Day, would the Cubs be in a different spot right now?   

“Obviously, I can’t answer that,” general manager Jed Hoyer said. “It’s an impossible question to answer. We put him in a leadoff position and he struggled. We obviously moved him out of that position (and) that didn’t work either. I know that’s what people are going to point to, because that’s a variable in his career. 

“Obviously, hitting him leadoff in 2017 didn’t work. Whether or not it caused the tailspin, I have no way to answer that question.”   

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The Cubs also deserve credit for: drafting Schwarber when the industry viewed him as a reach with the No. 4 overall pick in 2014; fast-tracking his development to the point where he could help the 2015 team win 97 games and two playoff rounds; and overseeing a rehab process that allowed him to be a World Series designated hitter less than seven months after reconstructive surgery on his left knee.    
 
The Cubs will have their hitting instructors give Schwarber subtle suggestions, focusing on how he starts his swing and where he finishes, trying to reestablish his balance and confidence during this Triple-A timeout.
    
But deep down, this is a 24-year-old player who never experienced a full season in the big leagues before and wanted so bad to be a huge part of The Cubs Way.

“I do think a lot of the problems are mental,” Hoyer said. “These struggles have kind of beaten him up a little bit. Like anyone would, he’s lost a little bit of his swagger, and I think he needs to get that back. But I think when you look at what a great fastball hitter he’s been – how good he was in ’15, how good he was last year in the World Series – the fact that he hasn’t been pounding fastballs this year is a mechanical/physical issue that we’ll be looking to tweak. 

“This is a guy that has always murdered fastballs and he’s not there right now.”