Happ's versatility a perfect fit with Cubs

Raking in Cactus League, second baseman keeps outfield skills handy

Ian Happ is hitting .438/.455/.813 with three homers, three doubles and nine RBIs in 16 games this spring. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

By Josh Jackson / MiLB.com | March 16, 2017 5:00 PM

MESA, Arizona -- Most organizations would love to call Ian Happ their own, but he's a natural fit with the one he already belongs to: Joe Maddon's Chicago Cubs.

Listed as a second baseman, the 22-year-old can also comfortably play all three outfield positions. When he reaches the big leagues, it probably won't be long before the Cubs are in a situation to use that versatility. After all, even All-Star third baseman Kris Bryant saw time at six positions last year.

"When you have the MVP bouncing around the field, everybody else better be able to do it," said Happ, the Cubs' No. 2 prospect who's also ranked No. 28 overall. "You see it with all these guys. You have to be able to play multiple positions."

Selected with the ninth overall pick in the 2015 Draft, Happ may have moved into left field permanently in another organization -- some scouts reportedly still see him landing there. Chicago, of course, has a deep and offense-rich outfield in the Majors, but that wasn't a factor in giving him every opportunity to develop as an infielder.

"The plan always, when we drafted Happ, he was going to come in, play outfield the first year just to get his bat going, and then immediately, at instructional league, start working on second base," said Cubs director of player development Jaron Madison. "It's something he's passionate about. He's worked his butt off and really improved at second base. It's somewhere he wants to be and has nothing to do with who's ahead of him or who's in the big leagues. Being on that team will help, because Joe will challenge him to play all over the field."

The Pittsburgh native has been on board with that plan.

"When I came in, I just wanted to be as versatile as possible -- be able to play as many positions as you can," he said. "If you're in the outfield, it's pretty tough to come back to the infield, so being able to be an infielder who can go to the outfield is something that I think is just going to help my versatility and help the team, so that was my main focus."

So far, so good. Through 16 Cactus League games as a non-roster invitee this year, Happ has hit .438/.455/.813 with three homers, three doubles and nine RBIs while spending 12 of those games at second and four as a DH. In his first full season, Happ played 50 games at second and six in left for Class A Advanced Myrtle Beach and 42 at second and 18 across all three outfield positions for Double-A Tennessee, all while combining for a .279/.365/.445 line with 30 doubles, 15 homers, three triples and 16 steals.

"The defense was always a little bit behind the bat, but if he was an outfielder, he'd probably move a little quicker just because he wouldn't have to worry about second base," Madison admitted. "But he's worked so hard at second. He's made improvements. I think that's the most impressive part, is watching him go about his business defensively and how he handles himself there, because we all knew he'd be able to hit and run into power. It's been there."

While his defensive work isn't complete, Happ believes his dedication has paid off.

"I feel really comfortable right now," Happ said. "I feel great at second base. I think there's always room to improve, especially learning from these guys who are doing it at the highest level. But I think it's important to continue the maturation process, continue to improve on every facet of the game."

Maddon evidently likes what he's seen. Over the weekend, he told MLB.com, "When you talk to the guy, he's one of those younger players who believes he belongs here. He's definitely a Major League player in waiting and his time will come."

Notes from camp

Cease done desisting: Dylan Cease, the Cubs' top pitching prospect who started his career sidelined by Tommy John surgery, is enjoying ramping up activity in Minor League camp after debuting with just 68 2/3 innings last year -- two seasons after he was drafted.  

"I'm definitely ready to start playing," he said Wednesday. "I've been here since January. It's been a slow process, but I'm really excited. I've thrown a couple live BPs. I haven't thrown against other teams, but I've been happy with it so far. I feel ready to go."

The 21-year-old right-hander works with three pitches, including a fastball that rates a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale.

"I'm really just trying to get everything better right now," he said. "The chanegup is something I do really want to develop this year, but fastball command, throwing my breaking ball for a strike or bouncing it is just as important. It's a combination of everything, just trying to get ready."

Read more about Cease's road to recovery in a Jan. 13 Toolshed column.

Milling about the plate: Alec Mills, who ranks as Chicago's No. 22 prospect after coming over from Kansas City in exchange for Donald Dewees Jr. last month, threw two scoreless innings for the Class A squad on Wednesday. Asked to stay on the field to face an extra batter, he recorded a punchout on five pitches -- four of them in the zone. The only hard contact came from P.J. Higgins, who ranks seven spots behind Mills on the team's prospect list.

It was Higgins' first spring plate appearance this year, and he ripped a single into right field.

"Especially for the first scrimmage and hitting without the cage behind you like in live BP, it felt good to get at-bats and be able to play a real live game," he said. "Just to barrel up the ball and have hard contact, it's always good, especially when that's your first live AB during the inter-squads and games are coming up."

Josh Jackson is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow and interact with him on Twitter, @JoshJacksonMiLB. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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