Christopher Morel and Ian Happ have been two of the most exciting parts of the Cubs’ season so far. Morel has been excellent in his first season in the MLB, and has provided defensive flexibility and solid offensive production. Happ is having the best season of his career and has been the Cubs’ second-best offensive player.
Morel is just 23, while Happ is 27, and both could be key players for the franchise the next time it competes for the playoffs.
Christopher Morel’s Outstanding Rookie Season
Morel has become an everyday starter for the Cubs since being called up in mid-May. He had a home run in his first career at-bat against the Pirates and has been excellent for the Cubs ever since.
One of the biggest parts of Morel’s game is his ability to play anywhere. During his MLB career so far, which has spanned 39 games and 180 plate appearances, Morel has played third base, shortstop, second base, and center field.
Over the first 40 games of his career, Morel has mostly played center field. So far he has recorded -4 Outs Above Average at the position, but he has shown the capability to be a good defender in center field, and will get closer to the league average as he continues to develop.
In the infield, Morel is best at second base but has had limited playing time at the position, with only 18 fielding attempts so far this season. He has a combined -1 Outs Above Average in 15 attempts at shortstop and third base, but the fielding sample is too small to take anything away from his defense at those two positions at the MLB level.
Whether or not Morel turns into an above-average defender at any of those positions is unimportant, because he still makes an incredible contribution as someone who can play anywhere; like Ben Zobrist or Chris Taylor. When the Cubs are next competing to make the playoffs, in 2023 or beyond, Morel will be a highly important player for the team because of his flexibility and how that can help the lineup on a day-to-day basis during a 162-game season.
During his first 39 games, Morel has already been worth 0.5 WAR. He has struck out 31.1% of the time, but his chase rate is actually above-average, which shows that while there is some swing-and-miss in his plate approach it mostly comes on hittable pitches.
He has consistently made good contact, with above-average hard-hit rates and average exit velocity, and his barrel rate of 13% is in the 86th percentile of the MLB and third-best among MLB Rookies. While he is always likely to strike out at an above-average rate, his pitch selection, and contact quality, more than make up for it.
With his ability to play so many positions and the offensive production he has had, Morel will be an important part of the Cubs’ rebuild. He also has room to develop in the future.
Ian Happ is On His Way to a Carrer-Best Season
During the first few years of his MLB career, Ian Happ sometimes struggled with consistency. In his rookie season in 2017, he was an above-average offensive player and was on his way to an excellent MLB career. In 2018 he took a step back on offense, and by 2019 he was sent down for part of the season to work on his development in what was a surprising move at the time.
Happ finished 2019 with a .898 OPS, 28% better than the league average, and earned MVP votes in 2020 as he was one of the main reasons the Cubs won the NL Central in the shortened season. However, the start of 2021 saw some bad luck for Happ in the early part of the year when he was making good contact, and by the end of July his season OPS was just .620 and there were rumors the Cubs would allow him to enter free agency.
Since then, Happ has become one of the best offensive players on the Cubs, and this year he is one of the best outfielders in the National League. A .857 OPS in the month of August last year broke him out of his slump, and he finished the season as a league-average offensive player despite the slow start.
This year, Happ has continued the end of his season last year into the first 70 games of 2022. He is 19th in the MLB in OBP among qualified hitters, with the lowest strikeout rate and the second-highest walk rate of his career.
Happ has also taken a huge step forward batting right-handed against left-handed pitching. During his career in the minors and the first few years of his MLB career Happ was much better batting left-handed, but this season he has batted .352 with a .936 OPS right-handed and .254 with a .804 OPS left-handed.
He still has more power when batting left-handed, but the development of his right-handed swing has resulted in Happ being a much more complete player. This season, he is a Top 40 position player in WAR, and will almost certainly be a member of the National League All-Star team.
Happ is just 27 and doesn’t become a free agent until after 2023, but there have been discussions that he will be traded at this year’s trade deadline. If he is, it would most likely mean the Cubs front office doesn’t anticipate competing for the playoffs before 2024.
An extension makes sense for the Cubs and Happ perhaps more than any other player from the last era of the team. He will reach free agency at 28 and has taken a clear step forward in his development. A contract agreement between Happ and the Cubs would mean the Cubs retain a key part of the team who is emerging as one of the best outfielders in the NL, while retaining financial flexibility for the future.
The Cubs are entering a new era for the franchise. However, Morel and Happ are two players that provide a potential glimpse into the future for the team.