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Happy Monday everyone!
We are now just one week away from the All-Star break, but we got some All-Star news over the weekend that’s sure to excite the North Side of Chicago. The Cubs will be sending two players (more on that later) to Los Angeles to play in Midsummer Classic on July 19, meaning they’ve had more than the required one player from each team every year since Wade Davis was the lone Cubs representative in 2017.
The hope is that trip to LA is a much more pleasant experience in Hollywood than this weekend series against the Dodgers. A four-game sweep is sure to ruin the vibe around any team, but it was especially tough considering the Cubs had just won four straight series and five of their last six.
But I’ll get into all of that in a bit. We’ve got some All-Star news to discuss in this week’s Monday morning Cubs thoughts, so let’s get right into it.
Ian Happ is an All-Star.
At the beginning of the season, that’s probably not something we all expected to happen. Happ had a solid end to the 2021 season, but he had yet to live up to the hype of a former ninth-overall pick on a consistent basis. That’s changed in 2022. After hitting .288 with a .944 OPS, 15 home runs and 40 RBIs after Aug. 1 of last year, Happ ended Sunday’s 11-9 loss to the Dodgers hitting .276 with a .818 OPS and 2.2 fWAR. So it isn’t just Happ riding another hot streak. He’s shown the consistency at the plate that he’s lacked for most of his six-year career in the big leagues.
I talked to Happ a couple of weeks back about the prospects of getting the All-Star nod. At the time, Willson Contreras was expected to be named the National League starting catcher (and he was), but Happ felt much more like a toss up. Still, even the idea of getting to go to that game and representing the Cubs was enough to put a smile on his face.
“It’d be awesome,” Happ said at the time. “Just the journey that takes you six years into your big league career and what that means. To be a part of that game, to be elected and join that group would be really, really special.”
Well, here you go, Happer. Your first All-Star nod, and one I’d say you’re deserving of.
Oh, you disagree that Happ deserved the All-Star nod? Well, here’s the argument in his favor.
Happ is one of seven outfielders on the NL All-Star team, along with Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Joc Pederson, Starling Marte, Kyle Schwarber and Juan Soto. There’s certainly going to be talk about All-Star snubs, but those are the seven outfielders that got the nod. Acuña, Betts and Pederson were elected to start the game, but I never really thought Happ had a shot at getting the fan vote just based on his name compared to the others. It was the player vote that I thought could tip the scale in his favor, because I felt his numbers stacked up with most of the other outfielders who had a good case to make it, too. I actually did make the case for Happ not too long ago, and though it might not be what convinced his fellow players to vote for him, I thought I laid out good reasons for why he belonged on the All-Star squad.
Though I don’t need to remake his case since he’s already on the team, I might as well just throw these stats back in here to make sure everyone can see why Happ is deserving of this spot. According to FanGraphs’ leaderboards, here’s where Happ ranks among qualified NL outfielders after Sunday’s contests:
- Fourth in OPS (.818)
- Tied for fourth in OBP (.370)
- Tied for fourth in wOBA (.355)
- Tied for seventh in wRC+ (128)
- Tied for seventh in WAR (2.2)
Those are obviously just a few, but in all, Happ ranks in the top 10 of qualified NL outfielders in just about every category and in the top five in at least a few relevant offensive stats. In that same conversation I had with Happ, he felt that it was even more rewarding to see his name up at the top of the leaderboards with the big-name players in the game, saying, “What you think you’re capable of as a player and then being able to see some of that stuff come out compared to your peers like that, it feels good. It feels good to feel like you’re part of that group.”
Make the argument for who some might consider to be a snub all you want. I’d say Happ had as good a case as anyone’s to make the All-Star roster, and clearly his peers felt the same way.
The crazy part about all of this is, without that surge over the last two months of the season, who knows if Happ even gets the chance to turn into an All-Star with the Cubs.
His journey has been a rollercoaster. He debuted on May 13, 2017, and he stayed with the Cubs through the 2018 season. He mostly struggled, however, and then after slashing .135/.196/.192 and striking out 14 times in 52 at-bats during the 2019 spring training, Happ was optioned to Triple-A before the start of that season. He spent most of the first four months with Iowa, not getting brought back up until July 26.
Then came 2021, when he struggled as much as he ever had in his career. Happ told reporters in Los Angeles on Sunday that when the Cubs were there for a four-game series at Dodger Stadium at the end of June, manager David Ross called him into his office. Happ had been hitting just .182 to that point in the season, and Ross told him he wouldn’t be playing much in that series. He didn’t get in the game at all during the series-opener on June 24, which also happened to be the night the Cubs threw a combined no-hitter against the Dodgers. He started Game 2 at second base but was taken out after two at-bats, then he had just one pinch-hit opportunity in Games 3 and 4 apiece.
If that feels like a low point, imagine what could have been had Happ not gone on that hot streak to end the year. Happ was facing an offseason where the Cubs had to make a decision on whether or not to even tender him a contract. The year before, the Cubs decided not to with Kyle Schwarber, another first-round draft pick who’d hit .188 himself during abbreviated 2020 season and didn’t quite live up to the promise of a first-round pick for most of his Cubs tenure. If Happ’s numbers didn’t improve, it’s certainly possible that the front office would’ve non-tendered him during the next offseason, too.
I think that’s what’s so impressive about all of this. On July 10 of last year, Happ was still at that low point.
Exactly one calendar year later, Happ was named an All-Star for the first time in his career. We know how dedicated Happ is to this game, and I think that turnaround is the best example of just how much work he puts in on a daily basis. As I’ve already said, I think he was more than deserving of this honor, and it’s one Happ will certainly cherish when he looks back on the adversity he’s faced over the last six seasons.
Speaking of Kyle Schwarber, you think the Cubs regret letting him go yet?
Yes, I already talked about his struggles that season, but this dude was a World Series champion with the Cubs and was still among the best power hitters in the league. We’ve talked plenty on our show about how much the Cubs could use a left-handed power bat. Well, there’s one right there who’s hit 60 homers in 710 at-bats over the last two seasons (he has 28 and counting in 2022 and we’re not even at the All-Star break) that the Cubs non-tendered way back in December 2020.
Does Schwarber turn things around in a Cubs uniform if they never let him go? Nobody will ever know for sure. But it certainly can’t feel great to see Schwarber’s power surge lead to back-to-back All-Star nods in the two years since he left the North Side.
I’ve already given my thoughts on this topic in a previous Monday morning column, but because it keeps getting brought up, I think it’s worth addressing again.
Outside of Happ’s breakout and Contreras putting together the best season of his career, Nico Hoerner has been one of the best stories for the Cubs this season. Not only is he slashing .306/.341/.429 as of Sunday, but he’s already set career-highs in home runs (five) and RBIs (26) while putting together career-bests in strikeout rate (10.9%), wRC+ (113) and fWAR (2.6, which is actually the sixth-most among shortstops in the majors). And then you add in his defensive metrics, where he tops the leaderboards of qualified shortstops with 10 Outs Above Average and ranks among the best in plenty of other categories. It feels like in each game he plays, Hoerner proves more and more that he is an everyday, major league shortstop. However, that doesn’t mean he has to be an everyday, major league shortstop. At least not if the Cubs are looking to compete for championships again as soon as possible.
Look, this is not me knocking Hoerner as a shortstop. If the Cubs decide to ride with him as the shortstop of the future, I think he’ll do a fine job. But there might be other options available during this upcoming offseason, and Hoerner shouldn’t be the reason the Cubs don’t make an attempt at any of them. The three names I see all the time are Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Trea Turner. Correa and Bogaerts would both have to opt out of their contracts to become free agents, while Turner’s deal is done after this season. All three are in a similar age bracket — Correa turns 28 in September, Turner just turned 29 and Bogaerts turns 30 in October — and I think each of them would be good options for any team to consider.
And that includes the Cubs. When it comes to Nico, he can play Gold Glove-caliber defense at second base and can probably play capable defense at a few other positions. So even if the Cubs did sign one of those shortstops, it isn’t like Hoerner all of a sudden becomes a bench player; he’ll have opportunities to play all around the field. That’s also assuming any of those potential shortstop signings comes with an agreement that they stay at that spot. Correa, Bogaerts and Turner likely want to play shortstop, and as All-Stars at the position in their own right, it might be tough to bring them in and tell them they’re being moved to another position on the field. But say whoever gets brought in does agree to move to a new position right away. Then, Hoerner goes right back to shortstop and everything is OK. Or, say that player doesn’t move from the spot at the start of his contract, but after some time, the Cubs make the switch (due to age, injuries, or what have you). Hoerner will only be 26 years old next May. He could easily spend a season or two playing somewhere else, and then move back to shortstop while he’s still in his prime.
Hoerner has the athleticism and the defensive ability to play all over the field, and he’s also got the professionalism that wouldn’t make it an issue if the Cubs asked him to move off of shortstop for a free agent signing. I’ve really been impressed with how much Hoerner has grown at the spot this season, but I also feel that, if one of those high-profile shortstops wants to sign with the Cubs this offseason, they should go and get him and figure out how to fit the pieces together later.
Now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s get into this weekend series in Los Angeles.
Coming off a series win in Milwaukee (the Cubs’ fourth straight series win, by the way), vibes probably couldn’t be higher around the team, especially since that streak started only a week after the Cubs ended a 10-game losing streak. Not that anyone outside of the clubhouse expected them to extend the streak to five straight series ‘W’s, but a competitive series against the best team in the NL would’ve been a very positive sign.
If you only look at the box scores, that’s exactly what it was. None of the four games was decided by more than two runs. The total score differential was only seven. It had the appearance of a competitive series, which, in all honesty, most of it was. If you’re a glass-half-full kind of person, that’s a positive you can take out of the four-game sweep. In this situation, though, a cynical view is probably the best view to take.
Yes, it’s true that the Cubs were in every game on the scoreboard, but the ways they lost each game are where the frustrations lie:
Game 1 (5-3): As soon as Mark Leiter Jr. gave up a run in the first and two more in the second, it felt like it was over. Tony Gonsolin is having an incredible year, and even though Christopher Morel tagged him for a two-run homer in the fifth that made things interesting, the Cubs really never had a chance at completing the rally.
Game 2 (4-3): This might’ve been the most frustrating loss because the Cubs really had it won. Keegan Thompson had an impressive performance (though he’s still finding himself going through that one inning with a lot of traffic) against one of the best lineups in the majors, and Hoerner and Happ gave the Cubs a 3-0 lead that should’ve been enough. But then Seiya Suzuki dropped a can of corn that led to an unearned run against Thompson. And then Chris Martin gave up a solo homer to make it a one-run game. And then David Robertson blew his second save in five days. And then the Cubs went 0-for-3 with the automatic runner on second in the 10th (part of their 0-for-15 stretch to end the game) before the Dodgers walked it off in the bottom frame. Just frustrating to watch from the sixth inning on.
Game 3 (4-2): Marcus Stroman had a strong return from the injured list as he threw four scoreless innings, and the Cubs took a 2-1 lead into the bottom of the seventh despite Clayton Kershaw toeing the rubber for the Dodgers. But as would be the story of the weekend, they couldn’t hold said lead. Rowan Wick, who’s struggled for most of the last six weeks, allowed a game-tying, solo homer to the first batter of the inning, and he then allowed two more and didn’t even finish the frame before the Cubs went down quietly.
Game 4 (11-9): OK, maybe this one was the most frustrating. Friday’s loss was frustrating in that the bullpen blew another great start for Thompson, but this one was frustrating in that the offense gave the staff so much room to breathe and they still couldn’t hang on. Hoerner’s RBI single and PJ Higgins’ grand slam in the first inning gave Drew Smyly (in his own return from the IL) a 5-0 lead right away, but he gave three back in the bottom frame. David Bote put the Cubs back up five with a three-run homer in the top of the third, but the Dodgers scored six in the bottom off Matt Swarmer and Mark Leiter Jr. and the Cubs never led again.
Just a very disheartening trip to Los Angeles, especially because at least three of the four games were more than winnable. You can spin zone this to say that the Cubs were right in every game if you want, but on the other hand, you can easily say this shows they have a lot of issues to fix before they can go out and beat baseball’s elite.
In case you missed them, here are some Cubs articles from the past week:
- Willson Contreras earns NL’s All-Star starting catcher nod
- Cubs’ rotation takes another hit after Kyle Hendricks’ early exit
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