Ian Happ is back in the dirt.
The Chicago Cubs prospect is making a transition from the outfield to second base – a position he played sparingly in the past. But that hasn’t stopped him from turning heads.
In fact, Happ’s current manager went as far as to say at times he thought he was a natural at second base.
“He’s getting better and better and, actually, he’s made a couple of plays that I was surprised with,” Myrtle Beach Pelicans manager Buddy Bailey said. “You’d have thought he had played second base forever, and at a lot higher of a level.”
Happ, who was primarily an outfielder during his three seasons at the University of Cincinnati, said there were talks of moving him to second base when Chicago drafted him in the first round (No. 9 overall) of the MLB draft last June. However, the organization didn’t pull the trigger on the move until Happ attended the Cubs’ instructional league at Mesa, Ariz. in September.
“They definitely flirted with the idea,” said Happ, the No. 3 prospect in the Cubs organization, according to Baseball America. “I wasn’t sure of it, but once I got to instructional league I knew that was something they thought highly of and I was open to it.”
Entering Friday’s game, Happ had played 28 games at second base, six in the outfield and one at designated hitter for the Class A-Advanced Pelicans. He has committed just five errors in over 243 innings in the infield so far.
“It’s been fun for me getting back in the dirt,” said Happ, who spent time in the infield in high school and college. “I’m still learning everyday, trying to get better and I think reps are a big thing. I’m just out here trying to [field] as many ground balls as I can. Like I said, it’s been fun and it’s nice to be able to bounce in the outfield, and be able to play both.”
Happ combines with shortstop Gleyber Torres – the Cubs’ No. 1 prospect, according to Baseball America – to make up one of the most talented middle infields in Minor League Baseball.
“It’s been great playing with Gleyber. He’s an unbelievable talent and just watching the way he goes about practice everyday and on game day, I’ve learned a lot. He fields the ball so smooth, and is always flying around,” Happ said. “Basically, every ball hit to him you know it’s going to be an out. Sometimes there’s balls you think would be hits that he’s taking away. We have a lot of fun at practice and in the game and I’m enjoying every second of it.”
Last season, Happ played exclusively in the outfield as he split time between short-season Eugene (Ore.) and Low-A South Bend (Ind.). He played 28 games (all in center field) at Eugene and split time at all three outfield positions in 33 games at South Bend, while committing just one error between the two stops.
“It was a learning experience, just getting my first taste of pro ball,” Happ said. “Playing everyday and just trying to get used to the rhythm.”
He may be close to finding his rhythm at second base, but Happ has been steady at plate during the transition as well.
After posting a .259 batting average with nine home runs, 33 RBIs and 50 runs scored in 67 games last season, the switch hitter is batting .268 with four home runs, 22 RBIs and 21 runs in 39 games with the Pelicans.
He’s also proved he can come through in the clutch.
“Ian Happ is huge for us, whether it’s been him getting the game-winning hit, scoring the game-winning run or just giving good at-bats,” Myrtle Beach hitting coach Mariano Duncan said. “I’m very happy with what I see in him swinging the bat, even though he’s batting around (.270). I know he’s better than what he’s shown, and I think as we get further into the season and into the second half, he’ll be where we’re thinking he’s going to be. He’s going to be really good.”
Duncan believes Happ is ahead of schedule at the plate, especially in his first season in Advanced Class-A ball.
“At both sides of the plate, I’m satisfied with how he swings the bat. The first time playing in this league, you have to give those guys at least the first half of the season to get used to the pitching, fielding and all that stuff at this level,” Duncan said. “And so far, so good; he’s exceeded my expectations. I’m excited for what he can do going forward.”
If his work ethic is any indication, his coaches believe he’ll continue to improve.
“He’s working. I’ll give him this – he’s going to get better because he puts a genuine effort in with intensity and concentration with all of his work. If guys do that, they’re going to get better and the guys that don’t are only as good as they are,” Bailey said. “So he has all the right intangibles going for him and he is improving and as long as he keeps the work ethic and commitment he has, he’s going to continue to get better.”
Said Duncan: “He’s in the cage everyday, preparing for the game and asks me a lot of questions about his swing and just wants to learn.”
Bailey also said he could see Happ succeeding in the big leagues one day.
“He’s turning the corner and the sky is the limit,” Bailey said. “He has a high ceiling and he’s a really good kid. He does everything professionally and, if he gets the most out of his ability, he’ll probably be an everyday major league player.”
Until then, Happ will be finding his home in the dirt.
“I’m just trying to get better everyday. I’m trying to get better getting on base, putting the ball in play as much as I can and trying to help this Myrtle Beach team win as many games as we can,” he said. “… I feel great [at second base]. Definitely as the season has progressed, I’ve gotten more comfortable with all the reps and I’m having a lot of fun with it.”