Cubs “Likely” To Trade Ian Happ?

Willson Contreras generates the most public speculation with the trade deadline a week away, but teammate outfielder Ian Happ has emerged as one of the more in-demand names on the trade market, ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports. That’s particularly notable when paired with Happ’s recent acknowledgment that the team has not approached him about a contract extension (link via Patrick Mooney of The Athletic).

Happ is “likely” to be traded within the next week, Passan writes, adding that some interested parties have approached the Cubs about package deals that would see one of Contreras or Happ traded alongside a reliever such as David Robertson or Michael Givens. (Passan doesn’t specifically mention righty Chris Martinthough as a pending free agent, he’s surely available as well.) More interestingly, Dennis Lin of The Athletic wrote over the weekend that the Padres have expressed interest in adding both Contreras and Happ in the same trade, though the ask on that would surely be immense.

MLBTR’s Anthony Franco explored Happ’s career-best production earlier this month, observing that notable gains in Happ’s plate discipline profile have generated the strongest and most sustainable results of his six big league seasons. Happ has always drawn walks at a high clip, but his penchant for strikeouts has often suppressed his overall value at the plate.

Most notably, as Anthony wrote at the time, Happ has wildly improved upon his contact rates in 2022. His 62.6% contact rate on pitches off the plate is up ten full percentage points from 2021, and his 83.7% contact rate in pitches in the zone is up from 79.9% a year ago. Happ’s 75.9% overall contact rate is less than one percentage point below the league average. That may not sound all that impressive, but pair roughly average contact skills with Happ’s high-end walk rate (10.9%), above-average power and above-average speed, and Happ looks like an increasingly well-rounded player. The switch-hitting Happ has also posted substantially better numbers as a right-handed hitter this season than in years past, and while part of that is due to a sky-high .463 BABIP as a righty, he’s also cut his strikeout rate against left-handers by about six percentage points this year (down to 25.1%).

Defensively, opinions on Happ are going to be a bit more mixed. After bouncing around the diamond earlier in his career, he’s settled in as Chicago’s left fielder this season, which is his best position. He’s logged 706 of his 718 defensive frames in left this season, with the other 12 coming via a few brief cameos in center. He’s been a scratch defender in 2022, per Statcast’s Outs Above Average, although both Defensive Runs Saved (+5) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+3.9) feel he’s been above-average.

It’s easy enough to see why Happ’s overall skill set would make him an appealing trade chip. He’s at least a solid defender in left — and a balanced switch-hitter with aa .282/.367/.445 batting line in 387 trips to the plate so far this season. His home run power hasn’t been up to previous levels — his nine long balls put him shy of pace to match last year’s career-high 25 — but Happ has already connected on a career-best 24 doubles and tacked on a couple of triples for good measure. Of even greater appeal, however, is the fact that Happ is controlled for an additional season beyond the current campaign.

Assuming Happ is indeed traded, whichever club acquires him can pencil him into left field both for the current postseason push and the entirety of the 2023 season. He’s earning $6.9MM this season and shouldn’t command much more than $10MM in 2023, which makes him affordable for the majority of clubs around the league. Happ also won’t even turn 28 until next month, meaning the former No. 9 overall draft pick is squarely in the typical prime of a hitter’s career.

Whether the Cubs will ultimately pursue the package offers reported by Passan or instead attempt to engineer standalone trades for all of their chips, of course, is entirely dependent on the strength of offers they receive. However, virtually every contender is looking to deepen its bullpen, so it’s only natural to think that a team with interest in Happ would take a two-birds-with-one-stone approach. Each of Robertson, Givens and Martin will be a free agent at the season’s end, and each is in the midst of a fine season.

Robertson has drawn the most attention among Cubs relievers in early speculation — as is often the case for those in the vaunted closer role — thanks in large part to a pristine 1.83 ERA and 14 saves on the season. He’s earning a $3.5MM base salary, although he’s on pace to reach all of his incentives (including a $100K trade bonus), which would bring his total salary up to $5.1MM. Still, for a pitcher with his track record and a 31.4% strikeout rate, that’s a reasonable price to pay — even if this year’s 11.9% walk rate is a bit concerning.

The 32-year-old Givens is also earning $3.5MM, but his contract contains $1.25MM of incentives and a $1.5MM buyout on next year’s mutual option, so his ultimate price tag will fall more in the $5.5MM to $6MM range. He’s pitched a 2.79 ERA with a 29.1% strikeout rate and a similarly elevated 11.5% walk rate. Like Robertson, Givens has a long track record as a solid late-inning reliever with roots in the AL East (Orioles).

As for the 36-year-old Martin, his ERA has swelled to 4.50 after yielding five runs through his past 3 2/3 innings, but even looking past that recent slump, he’s touting a brilliant 37-to-4 K/BB ratio in 30 innings so far in 2022. He’s on a $2.5MM salary and probably won’t get the 60 appearances he needs to max out his incentives, but he’s likely to unlock either $400K or $500K of the available bonuses on his incentive- laden contract before becoming a free agent at season’s end.

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