By Chris Emma–
CHICAGO (CBS) — Hours before first pitch Thursday at Wrigley Field, newcomer Ian Happ walked into the Cubs’ clubhouse like he’s been there forever.
He rounded the corner after greeting ballpark staff to mingle with media members and clubhouse personnel. Happ then grabbed his bat and went to the cages for some extra work on his swing. One wouldn’t imagine Happ just got his call to the big leagues last weekend.
“He seems like a veteran already,” third baseman Kris Bryant said, marveling at his new Cubs teammate.
Happ has managed just as well on the field, too. He homered in his first major league game last Saturday, then homered again Tuesday night at Wrigley. The 22-year-old Happ has a slash line of .308/.471/.846, good for an OPS of 1.317 in his first week.
While the early production has been impressive, Cubs manager Joe Maddon has also appreciated the way Happ has fit with versatility. On Thursday, Happ started in left field, playing his third outfield position in five games. Maddon received word from the minor leagues that Happ could fit in the outfield as well as second base. His value in Maddon’s mind greatly increased with that endorsement.
Like Bryant and many more before him, Happ is the latest Cubs prospect to rise through the minor leagues and fit right in with the big league club. The 2015 first-round pick, he has looked major-league ready in every facet of his work.
“Everyone that we’ve had, from my perspective, (has) walked in the door very well and not been intimidated,” Maddon said of the Cubs’ young players. “They probably feel it maybe in a quiet moment. But once they get here and get in the moment, they’re fine.”
On Thursday, Maddon spoke with more of an openness to Happ remaining with the Cubs. He has provided a needed jolt to the inconsistent lineup, but just as important is that versatility. That would mean Happ could stay in the majors and play various roles for Maddon, who believes he could properly balance the opportunity for growth.
President of baseball operations Theo Epstein firmly believes in thorough development throughout the organization. The Cubs want to see every box checked at each level of the farm system. They look for a rounded game and domination of each league before calling up a top prospect.
Now, Happ may have forced Epstein’s hand in short time. Rather than continued development in Iowa, he can instead benefit from preparation with Maddon’s madness.
The Cubs have certainly enjoyed having him.
“Right now, I’m just taking it day by day, enjoying being here,” Happ said of his impending status. “Hopefully I can be here as long as possible.
“It’s been awesome so far. I’ve been having a blast. Just happy to be here.”
A decision on Happ looms for the Cubs soon — perhaps even Friday. Outfielder Jason Heyward is set to rehab with the South Bend Cubs on Thursday night and will soon come off the disabled list if all goes according to plan. Initially, the Cubs had planned for Happ’s stay to be brief. Those plans may have changed.
Maddon enjoys having eight men in the bullpen — an option exercised Wednesday by calling up another right-hander Pierce Johnson — but he also likes to have that fifth man available off the bench. When Heyward returns, the Cubs could option veteran infielder Tommy La Stella, who would seem to be interchangeable with the young Happ.
“For me, I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can,” Happ said. “As long as I can be here and help, that’s my goal.”
Since Maddon arrived ahead of thte 2015 season, the Cubs have seen the debuts of Bryant, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, Willson Contreras and Albert Almora Jr. They’ve each come up to the majors, assimilated with the Maddon-fostered clubhouse culture and evolved into young stars.
Happ is the latest star prospect to arrive at the big leagues and look like he belongs.
“He’s looking like he doesn’t want to go anywhere,” Maddon said.
That very well may be what happens.