After many months of rumors and speculation, the Cubs finally pulled the ripcord on their rebuild in earnest at last year’s trade deadline. In quick succession, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Anthony Rizzo, Craig Kimbrel, Ryan Tepera, Andrew Chafin, Jake Marisnick and Trevor Williams were all given opportunities elsewhere.
Now the roster mostly consists of new faces, a combination of players with limited big league resumes and more experienced players acquired since the offseason began. That leaves five-year veteran Ian Happ as one of the longer tenured Cubs remaining, despite having just turned 27 in August. Assuming there are no drastic changes to the service time structure in the upcoming CBA, the Cubs can keep Happ around for two more seasons via arbitration. That makes him an interesting trade chip if the Cubs don’t return to being competitive in the next two years.
How hard they intend to try to compete in the short-term is an open question at this point. After such an aggressive selloff, it stands to reason that they will take some time executing the standard rebuild playbook of focusing on loading the farm system with prospects and using the big league team to evaluate younger talent. Going into the offseason, president of baseball operations Jed Hoyer said that the club would be “really active in free agency” but “spend money intelligently.” Since then, the club has been more active than some expected, adding Wade Miley, Yan Gomes and Marcus Stroman. However, the team still has flaws. It’s just one metric, but FanGraphs’ Depth Charts currently peg the Cubs 27th in the league in projected WAR for 2022.
The team could certainly still pursue upgrades, as their projected $114MM payroll, per Jason Martinez of Roster Resource, would be almost $90MM shy of their franchise record, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. However, they have mostly eschewed lengthy commitments recently, meaning that their books open up even more after 2023. Willson Contreras and Wade Miley are set to reach free agency after this year, Jason Heyward after 2023. Kyle Hendricks and Yan Gomes have two guaranteed years remaining, with the Cubs holding club options over both for 2024. That means that the only guarantees for 2024 are the $21MM for the last year of Marcus Stroman’s deal, which he has the ability to opt out of, and the last guaranteed year of David Bote’s extension, which is just $5.5MM. (There are also opt-outs of $1MM and $500K on Bote’s options for 2025 and 2026.)
Perhaps the most logical course for the Cubs from here is to spend two years figuring out which young players are part of the future and then using those empty books to decide how to spend money building around them. They could then spend wildly on their areas of greatest need, as the Tigers and Rangers have done this offseason.
Coming out of the lockout, it’s widely expected that there will be a mad flurry of transactions, perhaps rivalling or even surpassing the frenzy that occurred prior to the lockout. The Cubs would be able to be patient, as Happ would likely have just as much appeal at the trade deadline. He can fit on just about any club’s roster as he has versatility in more ways than one. For starters, he’s a switch hitter, although he does have a significant platoon split. (Career wRC+ of 121 from the left side but just 85 from the right.) Secondly, he’s can play most positions on the diamond. Although he’s played more outfield than infield in the past couple seasons, he still saw time at first, second and third base in 2021. The last time he played more than 20 games in a season at any one infield position was the 44 games he played at second base back in 2017, but teams still love a player with versatility, even if they hope not to need it.
Even if most teams don’t view Happ as a realistic infield target, he will still have appeal for his bat. In each of his five seasons, he’s posted above-average numbers by measure of wRC+, despite also racking up strikeouts at a rate above the league average. His career line thus far is .241/.338/.467, wRC+ of 112, strikeout rate of 30.8%. In 2021, he slumped slightly to a line of .226/.323/.434, but that was still good enough for a wRC+ of 103. There’s also room for optimism when one considers that Happ spent time on the IL in May for a rib contusion and improved as he distanced himself from that. His wRC+ in June was 32, followed by a 59 in July, 124 in August and 167 in September/October. He’s also projected to make a salary of $6.5MM this year through arbitration, as per MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, which is affordable for even the lighter spending teams in the league.
As mentioned, there’s no hurry to move Happ. He has two years of club control and maybe the Cubs can even surprise some people by surpassing expectations in the meantime. After all, it’s widely expected that the new CBA will include an expanded postseason field of some kind. Even hovering around .500 might be good enough to sneak in. Or if not, he could be flipped for younger players with the potential to be part of the next great Cubs team. Whichever way it works out, Happ could be useful to the team, whether he continues wearing their uniform or not.