The comparison game is one I tend to try to avoid. Comps can occasionally be informative, but too many will tend to consider a comp an over/under. Eventually, someone will comp someone to Javier Baez, and people will wildly assume that the on-field performances will be equal. Perhaps the comp is that he’s going to have fun every game, and push the boundaries of possibility. When a person places a comp, pay less attention to who, and more interest in why. Today, I go with a completely absurd comp for Ian Happ, and the key for the article is in the why.
Baseball in the early seventies was far different from today. Starting pitchers were expected to go at least seven innings, most of the time. Bullpens were six, not eight. Teams had no concerns over impeding the progress of a player through the pipeline. If he was considered ready, so be it.
The 1970 San Francisco Giants finished in third place in a six-team division, and decided to use prospect Chris Speier (who would eventually play for the Cubs) as their Opening Day shortstop in 1971, at age 21. By the end of April, Speier was hitting over .300 in a time when that mattered. May saw his numbers dive into the .260s (again, when BA mattered), and the Giants began to want another middle infielder. Their primary reserve was Hal Lanier, who was a replacement level guy. As the Giants were going to win the division, they wanted another shortstop, in case Speier hit the skids. They added Frank Duffy, a shortstop from Cincinnati.
The Giants had an outfield of Bobby Bonds, Willie Mays, and Ken Henderson in an era before arbitration years. Their fourth outfielder was Dave Kingman, who could run when he was younger. In addition, they had a few more outfielders on the way, so they were comfortable sending the inexperienced George Foster to the Reds. Now, this looks a stupid move. At the time, when prospects were just that, it made sense.
The Reds were having a rather miserable 1971. Their center fielder Bobby Tolan missed the season with an Achilles injury. With center field open, Foster played most of the time, as the Reds didn’t have much else to go with. In 1972, Foster was a rarely used reserve on a pennant-winning squad. 1973 saw him spend much of the season in Double-A. The team didn’t really have a reason to play him much, and he needed a regular chance to play. 1974 saw him in a bit of a time share. In 1975 and 1976, Cincinnati was The Big Red Machine, again.
Foster led the NL in RBI (back when that, too, mattered) for three successive years. Foster had to grow into the game. Once he did, he was a heart-of-the-order beast for seven straight seasons. He was traded to the Mets, and closed out his career with the White Sox. In the middle of his career, he was among the most feared hitters in the league.
Drafted in 2015, Happ was with short-season Eugene and South Bend in the Midwest League that season. 2016 saw him do the Myrtle Beach, Tennessee, Mesa Solar Sox trifecta. He had 116 at-bats in 2017 in Triple-A Iowa before being brought up to Chicago. “Rushed” could be used, but it made sense at the time. It made perfect sense to keep Happ “in heavy rotation” in 2017 and 2018. His production wasn’t what was desired in 2018, by many. Such is life.
The 2019 Cubs had enough options to let Happ go back to the minors, as Foster did in 1973. There’s no shot clock. There’s no specific pressure. He’s back to making $1,200 a month, or so. If he learns what he needs to, he’ll be back up. Again, though, there’s no rush from the Cubs end. He needs to get to the point where the team can’t justify keeping him in Triple-A. His OPS is in the .700s.
As with the Reds in 1973 with Foster, there’s no need to trade him. It’s highly doubtful anyone will swap a long-term asset for him, and that’s exactly what the team considers Happ. Happ is a long-term piece, if the light goes on. Even if the light is a bit inconsistent, Happ ought to outplay his contract for a few years. Javier Baez is one of nine players selected and signed at the ninth overall pick who have had 10-bWAR careers. That’s entirely acceptable. If by sending Happ back to Iowa (for however long it takes), and he ricochets back to quality regular, the idea works.
On the other side, teams wanting Happ are wanting him at a discount. They’re considering him a likely regular, but wanting him for a reliever return. It’s certainly no certainty that Happ does figure it out, but the upside if he does seems well worth the slight risk. The Cubs bullpen isn’t a glaring weakness, yet, anyway.
Could a trade for Happ make sense? Perhaps. However, the teams looking to trade what the Cubs would be wanting would likely be wanting Nico Hoerner or Miguel Amaya, instead. Eventually, it boils down to whether you’re more interested in a contending window, or a contending horizon. Coughing up Happ for a short-term piece might make a lengthy run in 2019 more likely. That would be fun.
However, Happ will be a piece who, hopefully, scoots into the “2022 and after” phase of the Cubs. I doubt he has any years remotely close to Foster’s best. He should, though, be useful for the Cubs for a string of years. In which year that starts? How long they last? I have no idea. My confidence is enough to oppose most trade talk, and many Cubs fans should be learning a lesson from this season. It’s perfectly legitimate to park a future regular in Triple-A to increase the likelihood he’s a future regular. It happened with George Foster in the 1970’s.