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What Ian Happ's extension says about the Cubs' real ambitions
Just minutes after the world knew that the Cubs and outfielder Ian Happ had agreed to terms on a contract extension, Happ walked to the plate for a first inning at bat in Wednesday’s game against Seattke. The Cubs put an announcement of the agreement up on the video boards and Marquee Sports Network decided to capture the rapturous cheering of the crowd to the exciting news by going to the field microphone and having Boog Sciambi and Jim Deshaies lay out and let the natural sound set the scene.
And…not much happened.
Happ got the same kind of polite applause that any Cubs batter is going to get in an April 12 first inning at bat. A couple of fans stood up, but they appeared to be on their way to the can.
Happ then nearly grounded into a double play.
The whole thing seemed perfectly apt.
Happ’s “fine.” He’s not a bad player, but he’s not that good. The Cubs try to cloak him in the legitimacy of being a one-time All-Star (so was Bryan LaHair) and Gold Glove winner (Rafael Palmeiro once won one while playing 28 games at first base.)
The crowd didn’t give him a muted reaction out of protest.
It’s just the reaction a player of his ilk is going to generate.
He’s the left field version of George Michael Bluth’s girlfriend, Ann.
It’s just so perfectly Cub that in the wake of their World Series title they tried and failed to re-sign everybody but him, and he wasn’t even on that team. He showed up a year late to the party.
And that clearly is part of the outsized glee some Cubs writers have about his new contract. They want to see it as proof that the Cubs can keep their own players and that they really are building something. But this signing doesn’t really do that second part.
It’s been a huge couple of weeks for them. They got to pretend adding one year onto Nico Hoerner’s contractual obligation to play for them was a huge feat. Now this.
Happ’s going to average $20 million a year for three years starting in 2024. The money’s not a problem. The way the Garbage Family That Owns The Cubs ™ hordes their cash, it’s nice to see them have to pay somebody. But come on, even they could have done better than this, if they really wanted to.
That’s the problem.
When spring training ended with no extension for Happ, the hope was that they had bigger plans for left field. They weren’t going to go long term with a guy who ranked 82nd in baseball last year in WAR (3.6) when they could spend a little more and get a lot more.
Granted, next year does not look like a great year for free agent hitters. Shohei Ohtani will dominate the market but he’s not going to set the market because nobody else can do what he can do.
But isn’t it a bad sign that Happ didn’t want to wait to cash in on that wide open market? He had to be a little spooked by what happened at the trade deadline last year. The Cubs shopped him and got basically no interest. Teams looked at him (“Him?”) and thought, that’s an OK player, can we get him for nothing?
Why did he sign for three years? I mean, I get that it’s $60 million. But wasn’t he going to be in line for five or six years at that same annual salary?
I guess Ian remembers better than Cubs fans that as recently as the 2021 trade deadline he was one of the worst hitters in baseball.
Just over 600 days ago, Happ was hitting .180/.294/.325 with 10 homers and 26 RBI and 90 strikeouts in 267 at bats.
This was coming off an excellent season during the pandemic in 2020 when ht hit .258/.361/.505 and was the only hitter how actually showed up for the Cubs’ brief two game playoff appearance.
The last time he turned a corner he ran into a wall. Maybe he just decided not to risk that happening again.
And that’s the most troubling part of this signing. It’s what it says about the Cubs ambitions.
They basically threw their hands in the air and said, “There’s no way we can do better than paying $60 million over three years for a guy who is a career .250/.341/.461 hitter.”
What it really means is that they don’t expect any of their crop of supposedly stud outfield prospects to be ready in the next three years, and they don’t care to be aggressive to trade for or sign anybody better than Happ.
It’s another very strong signal that their goal isn’t to build another championship team, it’s just to be good enough to sell the illusion of being playoff contenders.
The Cubs now have three position players signed through 2026 (Happ, Nico Hoerner and Seiya Suzuki) and one signed through 2057 or whenever Dansby Swanson’s deal ends.
Teams win titles with stars and that label doesn’t apply to any of those guys. They’re all nice players, but no real difference makers. You’re going to have to find some sometime. Left field seems like it would have been a good place to start.
It was telling when the always unctuous Cubs President of Taking Credit For The Franchise Buying New Lightbulbs, Crane Kenney, doddered into the booth with Boog and JD shortly after the Happ announcement had been made. Crane lauded Happ for being a good “corporate partner” because of his coffee or his dreadfully dull podcast, or his hair plug commercials or the commercials he and Boog do for predatory car extended maintenance warranties, or something.
The Cubs could use a big fucking left handed power bat in left field. But hey, at least this guy knows how to roast coffee?
This is the kind of signing you make when your actual goal is a lot less daring than your stated goal.
A team that won a World Series a few years ago but can’t wait to win another doesn’t settle for Ian Happ in left field long term.
A franchise that’s content to lurk around the edges of wild card contention does.
We can all rush out and get the new Obvious Shirt to celebrate the announcement.
IAN HAPP IS BETTER THAN NOTHING.