Hello, hello: Willson Contreras, Ian Happ ready for ‘fun’ return to Wrigley

After saying goodbye to Cubs fans before the trade deadline, Contreras and Happ were happy to find out they weren’t going anywhere.

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Fans hold up a sign for Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras as he bats during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tuesday, July 26, 2022, in Chicago.

Fans hold up a sign for Chicago Cubs’ Willson Contreras as he bats during the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Tuesday, July 26, 2022, in Chicago.

AP Photos

ST. LOUIS — Cubs catcher Willson Contreras summed up the trade deadline nicely:

“Obviously, there was a huge difference between last year’s and this year’s.”

After a much calmer deadline than expected, Contreras and outfielder Ian Happ will return to Wrigley Field on Friday for a three-game series against the Marlins, following an emotional goodbye tour in Chicago a week and a half ago. 

Neither said then that it was definitely their last homestand as Cubs.

“But I would have regretted it if I didn’t take it in that way,” Happ said then.

Now, after already receiving a warm welcome from the smattering of blue-clad fans in the Busch Stadium stands this week, they’ll reunite with the Wrigley Field faithful. 

“It’s going to be fun,” Contreras said. “It’s going to be good. I know we say goodbye because I assumed that I was getting traded. But it didn’t happen, and I’m glad that I get to go back to Wrigley Field where everything started and get to play in front of the best fan base in baseball.”

The fact that the Cubs weren’t as active at the deadline as last year will change the complexion of the second half. 

Last year, the Cubs went 21-37 after the trade deadline. But the departure of one-third of the Opening Day roster opened opportunities for players such as Scott Effross, Justin Steele, Keegan Thompson.

‘‘Being able to compete in those close games last year down the stretch and everything,” Effross told the Sun-Times before the Cubs traded him to the Yankees, “kind of allowed me to be more comfortable for this year and learn each day and take everything in stride.”

That’s the case again for the bullpen, after the Cubs traded away their veteran back-end relievers this week. 

The Cubs have recalled relievers Kervin Castro, whom they claimed off waivers from the Giants, and Anderson Espinoza since Tuesday’s trade deadline. They added lefty Matt Dermody as their 27th man for Thursday’s doubleheader and called up lefty Sean Newcomb, who could move to a multi-inning relief role after his start in the second game.

The Cubs also optioned infielder David Bote to Triple-A Iowa between games, clearing the way for young utility acquisition Zach McKinstry to seize regular playing time. But the trade deadline itself didn’t create any openings for up-and-coming position players. 

“We’re excited about getting the young guys in, getting them leverage innings, getting them consistent at-bats,” general manager Carter Hawkins said. “But at the same time, we have guys who can help us win baseball games, and we want to make sure that they’re able to do that for us. We want to be competitive, we want to win as many baseball games as we can. 

“So it’s going to be that balancing act that we’re going to have. And that’s going to be constant conversations between [manager David Ross] and [president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer] and myself. And I look forward to making it as productive of a second half as we can.”

The level of play is bound to be better with Contreras and Happ than without them. But the last two transaction windows have put the Cubs well out of playoff contention even if they go on a run as their rotation gets back to full strength. 

A trade would have sent Contreras or Happ to a team with World Series aspirations. Happ said staying with the Cubs was still “100%” the outcome he’d wanted. Contreras said he was just happy the uncertainty was over. In his first two games after the deadline, he hit a triple, home run and double. 

Contreras insisted he didn’t need anything from Hoyer to move forward after an emotional couple of weeks. 

“We have a really good relationship,” Contreras said. “They did what they were supposed to do, listen to offers.”

Happ had one request, but not from the organization. 

“That Willie hug at Wrigley has been really out there, really overblown,” he said with a laugh, referring to his embrace with Contreras after the last homestand. “Keep that out of the media for a little bit.”

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