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Happ Next In Line But Will Hoerner Get Next Extension From Cubs?

CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – AUGUST 25: Ian Happ #8 of the Chicago Cubs throws the ball against the St. Louis … [+] Cardinals during the third inning at Wrigley Field on August 25, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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The dialogue and intrigue has begun. Ian Happ is the Cubs’ next free agent in waiting, and like Anthony Rizzo, Kris Bryant, Javier Baez, Kyle Schwarber and Willson Contreras says he’d love to stay with the team he has been with his entire career.

While President of Baseball Operations Jed Hoyer says the team is interesting in signing him long-term, it would be surprising if Tom Rickett’s franchise dug deep to keep Happ, who last season delivered a career-high 3.5 fWAR. The common denominator between the offers extended the others, Rizzo said in 2021, is “none of us signed.”

But Rizzo, Bryant, Baez, Schwarber and Contreras were traded or non-tendered (in Schwarber’s case) when the Cubs were actively disassembling the powerhouse that went to the postseason five times in six years, yielding one trip to the World Series. They signaled their interest in building another team capable of contending by signing Dansby Swanson, Jameson Taillon and five other free agents to deals worth about $303 million this winter.

Happ is not the only player drafted by the Cubs who is involved in talks about a contract extension. Middle infielder Nico Hoerner, drafted as a shortstop but penciled in mostly second base to accommodate Baez and Swanson, is another possibility to sign before players report to Arizona next month.

Happ, a switch hitter entering his age-28 season with a .798 career OPS, could be a long-term fit in left field. But he is dealing with supply and demand issues with Japanese right fielder Seiya Suzuki entering the second season of his five-year, $85 million deal and a pack of outfield prospects parked in the high minors. Cody Bellinger plays alongside Happ this season after signing a one-year, $17.5 million deal but is the biggest wild card in the outfield.

Happ was selected with the ninth pick of the 2015 draft, in the era when the Cubs leaned toward proven college hitters at the top of the draft. He has always radiated belief in himself but struggled defensively when he was moved around between second base and center field early in his career. He has settled into left, earning a Gold Glove there last year when his play was worth 13 Defensive Runs Saved.

Five of the Cubs’ top-10 prospects in MLB.com rankings are outfielders, and all five should open 2023 in Double-A or Triple-A. Pete Crow-Armstrong, a former first-rounder acquired from the Mets in the Baez trade, heads a list that includes Brennan Davis, Kevin Alcantara (acquired from the Yankees in the Rizzo trade), Alexander Canario (Giants, Bryant trade) and Owen Caissie (Padres, Yu Darvish trade).

The Cubs also figure to open 2023 with young outfielders Christopher Morel and Nelson Velazquez on the roster. Morel will get a look at third base after playing poorly in center field last year (-6 DRS).

Hoerner joined Happ as one of the best performers on the Cubs’ 74-88 team last season. He compiled a .281/.327/.410 slash line and graded out at 4.0 fWAR, thanks largely to his +10 DRS at shortstop. His fielding metrics have been even better at second base, which creates excitement about the team being strong defensively up the middle with him playing alongside Swanson, who won a Gold Glove last season in Atlanta.

Hoerner was the Cubs’ first round pick in 2018 after playing for Stanford. A series of injuries wrecked his 2021 season but he has otherwise been consistent in his pro career, establishing himself as an all-around contributor who offsets limited power by being hard to strike out.

As a first-time arbitration-eligible player, Hoerner will earn $2.525 million this season. He’s under Cubs’ control through 2026 but an extension could give the team a middle infield to build around through ’29, which is the last year of Swanson’s seven-year, $177 million contract.

Manager David Ross has compared Hoerner to often-injured twin Byron Buxton, saying they have similar swings that put a lot of stress on their core. But Hoerner played 135 games last season, which was second to Happ on the team. If anything, memories from the frustrating 2021 season could make Hoerner anxious for long-term security.

An agreement with either Happ or Hoerner would be the Cubs’ first major move to lock up internal talent since Theo Epstein signed Kyle Hendricks to a four-year extension in the spring of 2019, when he was two years away from free agency. It’s time to get a deal done, not merely discussed.

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