Opening Day is a few sleeps away, and that has teams across baseball trimming their rosters down to 25 players. The Chicago Cubs are no different, as they used Saturday to make a series of moves designed to reduce their camp headcount. One of those moves, however, has raised eyebrows across the sport: The demotion of Ian Happ, who led off last year's opener with a homer.
The Cubs' official reasoning for dispatching Happ to Iowa is straightforward: they want him to play everyday, a luxury they can't offer at the big-league level. Here's part of manager Joe Maddon's explanation, per ESPN:
"We want to make sure he gets down there and gets consistent at-bats, especially from the left side," manager Joe Maddon said. "We consider him a huge part of our future."
Maddon added that Happ is displeased with the decision. He should be. In nearly 900 big-league plate appearances, he's posted a 107 OPS+ with 39 home runs. Happ has seen action at numerous positions, both on the infield and in the outfield, which theoretically makes him a fit on any roster at any time -- just, uh, not the Cubs at this point.
Happ apparently quite unhappy w decision. From Maddon: He's not happy & he shouldn't be happy. He was surprised. Asked if he calmed down by end of convo: That's pretty personal, I don't want to share that. He wasn't happy. We didn't want it to be that and we did not expect that— Sahadev Sharma (@sahadevsharma) March 24, 2019
There are nits to pick with Happ, of course. He's struck out in roughly 34 percent of his career plate appearances, giving him one of the highest rates in baseball. He's also had a brutal spring, posting a .389 OPS in 52 trips to the plate. Happ has gone down on strikes 14 times. But the strikeouts haven't prevented Happ from being a productive player, and poor springs haven't prevented Jason Heyward and Daniel Descalso from making the Cubs' Opening Day 25.
OF Mark Zagunis is still in camp with the Cubs, but the team is still exploring external options for the OD roster.— Jordan Bastian (@MLBastian) March 24, 2019
That the Cubs are now reportedly seeking outfield help doesn't make the Happ demotion look much better, either. Adding some waiver-wire, replacement-level type in place of Happ makes the Cubs' roster worse, not better in the short term -- even if the Cubs' hope is that it'll make them a better team over the course of the season if/when Happ gets his swing right.
It's easy to see, then, why some have wondered if there are other factors at play here, like service-time implications. Happ almost certainly would have qualified for Super Two had he spent the entire year in the majors: He'll enter 2019 with a year and 142 days of time; last year's cutoff was two years and 134 days. Because the rules stipulate that optional assignments lasting less than 20 days result in the player receiving credit for the interim period, the Cubs may well tip their hands on their real motivation for demoting Happ if he spends April in Iowa.
Maybe that's too cynical for some people. Keep in mind, though, the Cubs helped usher in this new era of business-first baseball by blatantly manipulating Kris Bryant's service time in 2015. Hopefully, for Happ's and their fans' sake, the Cubs aren't prioritizing profits to winning. But you reap what you sow, and baseball's front offices have, as a group, earned this line of questioning on every move they make, whether that's the intention or otherwise.