MESA, Ariz. — Look, it’s not the end of the world. The Cubs and second-year outfielder Ian Happ — a spring sensation, and that’s putting it lightly — were unable to come to terms on a 2018 salary. So the team opted to simply renew his deal at a reported $570,000, which is just a smidge over the prorated league minimum.
Happ, who belted a measly 24 home runs in 115 games as a rookie, is the first player with three or fewer years of big-league experience to have his contract renewed by the Cubs in Theo Epstein’s seven years in charge of these things. Every other such player struck a new deal.
If Happ is bent out of shape about a turn of events that undoubtedly cost him some money, even if not a lot of it, he isn’t saying so.
“It’s perfectly fine,” he said Tuesday, a few hours before clubbing a leadoff home run off Giants ace Madison Bumgarner at Sloan Park. “There were no issues, no hard feelings. The guys upstairs do a great job of treating players the right way.”
But there’s little doubt Happ — who many felt was a candidate to be traded during the offseason — is on a path toward reaping the big-time benefits of baseball. On second look, there’s nothing measly at all about the 24 homers and 68 runs he drove in during an impressive 2017 debut. And the shot off Bumgarner was his fifth already this spring.
Happ made a lot of sense as a potential trade piece because of his tremendous versatility as a 23-year-old, switch-hitting center fielder with extensive experience at second base. It turns out the Cubs are the team most likely to benefit from all that. A major payday appears to be coming from somebody, before too long.
“We all play this game because we love it and we love the competition,” Happ said. “Everything that comes along with it is just a benefit. That’s how I look at it.”
That’s understating the reality of the matter, which is that Happ’s performance — which includes back-to-back spectacular springs with the bat — has been a revelation. Lately, he isn’t just throwing his hat in the ring to be the Cubs’ primary leadoff hitter this season. He’s making all conversation on the topic moot, his batting average this spring hovering near .400.
Happ wasn’t necessarily considered a leadoff man of the future when the Cubs drafted him in the first round in 2015, but perhaps he should’ve been. He led off throughout high school. He did it some more as a college star at Cincinnati during summer ball in the Cape Cod League.
His switch-hitting certainly plays favorably into the role, especially if Happ is correct in his assessment that his tools from the right side of the plate (see: the homer off Bumgarner) have been sharpened across the board since last year. Happ, a natural right-handed hitter, has been a full-time switch hitter since his freshman year of high school, but he starting experimenting with it in earnest a whole lot earlier than that — at eight years old.
Happ’s brother, 14 at the time, was giving switch-hitting a shot. Happ’s favorite big-leaguers, the Indians’ Omar Vizquel and the Braves’ Chipper Jones, hit from both sides of the plate. It just felt right and has ever since.
Seven-figure success? It’s only a matter of time. For now, Happ wants to put that leadoff role on lock.
“I really enjoy it,” he said. “I enjoy getting on for those guys behind me, and my approach suits it well. And I want those five at-bats every day. I want to be in that position where I know it’s going to happen and I can be confident in that it’s something I’ve really embraced.”
Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.