Happ optioned, won't start season with Cubs

March 24th, 2019

MESA, Ariz. -- Moves were expected to be made at Cubs camp Saturday, but the decision announced by manager Joe Maddon came as a surprise. It also stunned Ian Happ, who was informed that there would not be enough at-bats to offer him and he would start the season with Triple-A Iowa rather than with Chicago.

"He's not happy and he shouldn't be happy," Maddon said. "I really don't blame him. The guy has really performed very well for us at different periods of time on the Major League level. He is so ingrained in the culture within the building and within the clubhouse. Great teammate. A lot of the veterans have accepted him very readily, which doesn't happen often with young players.

"So, there's a lot to consider there. We knew that it would be a difficult conversation, but having difficult conversations should never dissuade you from making what you perceive to be the right decisions."

Maddon said that the decision to option the 24-year-old Happ to Triple-A was a "unanimous" one by the Cubs' brass. While the manager felt Happ showed improvement from the right side of the plate this spring, he said there is still a lot of work to be done as far as consistency from the left side. At Iowa, Happ will also play mostly outfield, while getting some innings at second and third base.

Without Happ on the Opening Day roster, Albert Almora could garner more regular work in center field, where Jason Heyward is also an option. At second base, where Happ was getting innings this spring, the Cubs will lean on Ben Zobrist, Daniel Descalso and David Bote.

As for the final bench spot -- now open with Happ not in the picture -- Maddon said the Cubs are still discussing a variety of scenarios.

"With our platooning the way we do it," Maddon said, "we thought [Happ] would not have enough time to work on the adjustments he's been working at so diligently this offseason and this Spring Training. So, of course, with a young player, they're never going to quite understand it or want to do it."

Happ -- a first-round pick by the Cubs in the '15 MLB Draft -- broke into the big leagues in '17 with 24 home runs and a .514 slugging percentage. Last year, the switch-hitter saw his on-base percentage climb (.353 in '18 vs. .328 in '17), but he hit .233, experienced a large drop in slugging (.408) and posted a 36.2 percent strikeout rate. Over his final 60 games last season, Happ hit .196 with a .653 OPS and struck out at a 36.8 percent clip.

Through 17 games this spring, Happ hit .135 (7-for-52) with a .389 OPS and 14 strikeouts.

"We just want to make sure that he gets down there," Maddon said, "and really gets a lot of consistent at-bats, especially from the left side. Obviously, we consider him a huge part of our future, but just based on the conclusion of last year and what we're seeing at this point this year, we think it's really important [to do it this] way."

External help on horizon?

In light of the move with Happ, Maddon was asked if the Cubs' Opening Day roster will be finalized via the pool of players currently in camp with the big league club. The manager said Chicago's front office is still exploring external alternatives for the few roster vacancies.

"GMs, presidents are still looking," Maddon said. "They'll look at waiver wires this time of year to see if there's any way to make you better than you are right now, and they do things. And again, it's 25 to open. A different 25 conclude. It's so important to have depth. People get injured. So, they would be doing us a disservice just to say, 'No, this is it.' And if we feel like there's somebody that can help us in the present tense, we will."

If the Cubs do target players from outside the organization, the team would be looking at bullpen help, a backup catcher or a extra outfielder.

Lester's last tune-up

Lefty Jon Lester logged four innings in Saturday night's 11-6 loss to the Rockies, allowing six runs on nine hits with one walk and four strikeouts. Lester averaged 89.5 mph with his four-seam fastball (topping out at 91.7) and piled up 72 pitches in his final Spring Training start. The southpaw will take the ball for the Cubs on Opening Day against the Rangers on Thursday.

"I feel like I threw the ball better than that," Lester said. "I'm asking [catcher Willson Contreras], just because I want to make sure and he's telling me, 'Good pitches,' and I'm getting him around. So, I've got to take that as a positive, that we're doing the things that we want to do with the baseballs. It's just not working out right now, or in this game. Thank goodness it doesn't mean nothing. You move on and get ready for Thursday."

Worth noting

• Descalso (left shoulder) went to the Minor League side on Saturday to racked up five at-bats as a designated hitter. The plan is to have the veteran utility man get four to six at-bats while playing second and short (two innings at each spot) in a Minor League game on Sunday.

• Starter Yu Darvish, who had a blister flare on his right ring finger during his start against the Mariners on Tuesday, is slated to pitch in a Minor League game on Sunday. The Cubs are hopeful that Darvish will remain on schedule for the regular season.

• Reliever Pedro Strop (right hamstring) is expected to pitch on either Monday or Tuesday against the Red Sox. The Cubs are optimistic that he will be fine for the Opening Day bullpen.

• The Cubs granted right-hander Junichi Tazawa (in camp as a non-roster invitee) his release on Saturday. The team also optioned right-handers Dillon Maples and Alec Mills, along with catcher Taylor Davis, to Triple-A Iowa. Utility man Cristhian Adames and outfielder Johnny Field were reassigned to Minor League camp. Chicago's camp now includes 33 players.

Up next

Left-hander Mike Montgomery is scheduled to start for the Cubs on Sunday against the Padres at 2:10 p.m. CT in Peoria, Ariz. Montgomery projects to be in the Cubs' Opening Day bullpen as a multi-inning swing man. Lefty Logan Allen is slated to start for San Diego.