Cubs' Ian Happ says minor league stay made him better

Ian Happ was a top prospect. Then he had a very uncertain future after he was sent down to the minors again. Then he made his way back to the Chicago Cubs.

All in a span of three years.

It has been quite a ride for Happ, who was selected by Chicago with the No. 9 pick in the 2015 amateur draft. But he thinks he is a better player after spending much of last year with Triple-A Iowa.

“I think once something like that happens, you learn a lot about yourself,” Happ said. “You learn a lot about your baseball abilities and what it takes mentally to get back to that place.”

Now the versatile Happ is once again in the mix for the starting job in center field, looking to help Chicago get back to the playoffs after the Cubs fell short a year ago. He had two more hits during Thursday's game against Texas, increasing his batting average to .500 (9 for 18).

“I see a guy that's focused and knows what he wants,” manager David Ross said.

Happ, a Pittsburgh native who played college ball at the University of Cincinnati, broke into the majors in 2017 and quickly became a key performer for Chicago. The switch hitter batted .253 with 24 homers and 68 RBIs in his first season, helping the Cubs win the NL Central and reach the NL Championship Series for the third straight year.

At that point, Happ was regarded as a bright young star. But he was unable to build on that impressive rookie campaign.

He struck out 167 times in 142 games and dropped to 15 homers in 2018. After he struggled during spring training last year, the Cubs sent him down right before the start of the season.

“Especially being in the big leagues for two straight years and then kind of unexpectedly having something like that happen, you have to adjust and really figure out what it's going to take for you to be a big leaguer and be successful,” Happ said.

Happ used the regular playing time in Iowa to work on his approach at the plate and his defense in center. When he returned to Chicago in July, he looked more like the player he was during his rookie season.

Happ was particularly strong at the end of the year, batting .480 with five homers and 12 RBIs in his last eight games.

“It's hard. There's a big jump between the minor leagues and the major leagues,” said Ross, a former big league catcher. “Sometimes you've got to go back down and figure out how to work on some things without all the pressure of a major league season and a crowd of 50,000 people."

Happ looks quite comfortable with his surroundings this spring. He has a running joke with first baseman Anthony Rizzo about never smiling, though Ross said it's all an act and Happ has a really good sense of humor.

On the field, it looks as if he is competing with Albert Almora Jr. for the job in center. He also doesn't sound like he's worried about going back to the minors anytime soon.

“Working on getting ready for the season, I think that's the biggest thing,” Happ said. “It's just being diligent with the work in the mornings and then just practicing approach and different situations that you get in games.”