Ian Happ’s Best Season Could Be His Last in Chicago, Pushing Rebuild Completion Even Further Out

Ian Happ is having his best season by nearly every statistical measure and he should still have a few seasons left at or near his athletic peak, which makes him seem like the perfect player to build around. But with only one more year of club control under his rookie deal and just over one month left before the deadline, the Cubs might view Happ’s trade value as greater than his potential contribution over a longer term.

What Jed Hoyer and his front office decide to do with Happ over the next few weeks may be as telling as anything when it comes to just how long this rebuild is going to take. Moving Willson Contreras would create a massive gap in and of itself, but parting with Happ as well would be a very clear sign that the Cubs are punting on at least the 2023 season.

If that sounds familiar to frequent readers, I wrote something similar about Yu Darvish prior to last season. And here we are in 2022 with the Cubs trending toward 100 losses after finishing with the seventh-worst record in MLB last year. Thing is, I never expected them to continue spinning off every veteran on the roster and prolonging the poor play for another year or two.

Hoyer said recently that he doesn’t worry about having the budget to go big on extensions or free agents, that the money will be there “when the time is right to be aggressive again.” Even if they peg this offseason as a time to spend, trading away both Contreras and Happ would mean that a huge portion of the budget would have to go toward simply replacing that lost production.

Happ is earning just $6.85 million this season and might be in line for $10 million or a little more next year, or just about half of what you’d have to pay annually for a comparable free agent. To cherry-pick an example, Kyle Schwarber is earning around $20 million a year with the Phillies. Chris Taylor got $15 million a year over four years from the Dodgers and he’s four years older than Happ.

Seems like it would make sense to buy out an arbitration year and maybe get a little bit of a discount to lock Happ in for a few more years. Despite the obvious distractions stemming from last year’s sell-off and the strong potential for another one this summer, he has taken his game to a new level this season. In addition to being healthy, just having a consistent spot in both the field and the lineup has helped a great deal.

A quick look at all left fielders shows that Happ is third overall with 1.9 fWAR, fourth with a .362 wOBA, and fifth with a 132 wRC+, all while dropping his career strikeout rate by 10 points. You would think that’s the kind of steady performance a team would want to lock up, particularly when it’s a player who was drafted and developed by the organization. But that’s not necessarily how things work.

“You see both sides of it,” Happ told Gordon Wittenmyer. “There’s an emotional part of being here, being with that group, those guys being your friends. And then there’s the business part of it, where there’s a chance to get other players back and help impact the organization. That’s why they do what they do.”

Moving both Happ and Contreras would effectively make Nico Hoerner the face of the franchise, but it would also mean suffering through another year or two of passivity. Unless, that is, Hoyer gets a $200 million budget and manages to convince four or five top-line free agents to join the fold this winter. What appears far more likely at this point is that the organization will count on the new sportsbook to be a big draw even if the team itself isn’t.

Who knows, maybe all this hand-wringing is for nothing and the Cubs have plans to extend Happ and bring Contreras back in free agency. Maybe all the top prospects will work out on an accelerated timeline and everything will come together marvelously to form the core of The Next Great Cubs Team, one that will be properly maintained this time around.

Does the DraftKings Sportsbook at Wrigley Field have odds on that?

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