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Cubs prospects Ian Happ, Pierce Johnson heat up

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The Chicago Cubs deep farm system is once again starting to heat up. Second baseman Ian Happ and starting pitcher Pierce Johnson are off to fast starts in 2016.

Pierce Johnson
Pierce Johnson
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Chicago Cubs witnessed a coming of age in 2015. Their highly acclaimed farm system saw the true rookie seasons of Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell and Jorge Soler as well as the debut of players like Carl Edwards. Somehow, the Cubs farm system is still deep and still quite elite.

While many people eagerly await the arrival of Albert Almora and the return of Duane Underwood, two former first round picks are starting to heat up on the farm for the Cubbies.

Ian Happ, Myrtle Beach Pelicans, 2B

Looking to follow in Bryant and Schwarber’s footsteps, Happ was selected as the Cubs next great hitter ninth overall in the 2015 MLB Draft. He came to the Cubs with quite the resume, posting a solid three-year career at Cincinnati and two strong All Star campaigns in the prestigious Cape Cod League.

Happ became known as a smart hitter with a good bat and plus base stealing ability. He real strength, however, showed great awareness of the strike zone. He posted an insane 116 strikeout to 128 walk ratio in 574 career collegiate at bats, and even led the Cape Cod League in walks in his second season with the Harwich Mariners. He also showed modest home run pop with great base path awareness, showing off the tools that could one day make him a perenial 20-20 threat.

The 21-year old switch-hitter has a balanced, compact swing that looks nearly identical from both sides of the plate. He plants his front foot moments before the pitch arrives and his bat moves quickly through the strike zone. The result is often good contact and surprising power.

Happ’s professional debut showed his ability to get on base (40 walks in 295 plate appearances or 14-percent) and his balance in power and speed, but may have shown more of the reality in his average. Whereas Happ was a lock to hit .320 yearly in college, his consistency in contact was down in his debut. While it isn't necessarily fair to judge a 21-year old in his first small sample size, he may be more of a .280 to .300 hitter in the bigs, hitting .259 over two levels of A Ball last season.

This year, Happ is already swinging a hot bat. He is slashing .313/.450/.547 and is coming off of a week that saw him belt three home runs and drive in eight while walking nine times. He is a perfect 3-for-3 on the season in stolen bases, while striking out 18 times and walking 15. Of his 20 hits thus far, eight are for extra bases. Simply put, offensively there seemingly isn’t anything that Happ can not do well.

It looks as if he has permanently switched from the outfield to second base. He already has committed five errors in his first 14 games as a second baseman, but a learning curve can be expected. While it may slow his ascent to the Majors in the short term, it could accelerate his arrival to the big leagues in the long term. Happ wasn’t expected to see Chicago this season, but as Ben Zobrist isn’t getting any younger and Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are on the pipeline in an already overcrowded outfield, a successful switch to second could see Happ’s MLB debut as early as next season.

Pierce Johnson, Iowa Cubs, RHP

While Duane Underwood has stolen the thunder as the Cubs top young arm on the farm, Pierce Johnson my be proving he is the most Major League ready. What has held Johnson back thus far is his injury history.

The 24-year old righty was selected 43rd overall by the Cubs in the 2012 Draft. While he has posted an impressive 2.47 ERA and 1.22 WHIP since then, he has also had serious question marks about his durability. He’s made only 62 starts entering this season (that’s a mere 15.5 a season), which hardly is reliable for future top of the rotation consideration. A lat strain was his most recent ailment, and it delayed his season nearly two months in 2015.

Johnson has looked good in his first two career Triple-A appearances in 2016. He currently has a 1.13 ERA with 11 strikeouts and four walks over eight innings. His last appearance saw him go five innings, striking out six and walking just one. He has been rather hittable, allowing eight hits already, but that may be because of some bad luck as he has a .421 BABIP against him. Luckily for Iowa, he is stranding 92-percent of his runners as he is on pace for a career high strikeout rate.

Johnson has three pitches that he throws efficiently, adding a fourth that has progressed nicely. He throws a low 90s fastball that hits as high as 96. He induces swings and misses with his changeup that he controls well in the 80s, and he can freeze batters with his hammer curve as an out pitch. He added his cutter and has been effective with it, giving him more looks to confuse batters.

Based on talent and ability, Johnson projects as a Major League starting pitcher, likely a middle to back end of the rotation kind of guy, with he floor of a No. 5 and the ceiling of a No. 3. Due to his injury history, however, the Cubs may use him in a long relief role until he proves that he is durable. It’s safe to assume that should he stay healthy and effective, Johnson will make his big league debut this season in some capacity, though likely a bullpen role.