- Associated Press - Sunday, February 26, 2017

MESA, Ariz. (AP) - Everyone is a potential teacher for Ian Happ, from Ben Zobrist to Javier Baez to manager Joe Maddon and the coaching staff.

There is no room for Happ on the Chicago Cubs at the moment, not with All-Stars all over the infield and established major leaguers in the outfield. But the 22-year-old second baseman, one of Chicago’s top prospects, is trying to make the most of his time in big league camp with the World Series champions.

“I’ve been picking all these guys’ brains. It’s nice to be around a club with so many guys that have so much experience in the game,” Happ said. “So I’m just going to keep soaking it up.”

Happ and slugging outfielder Eloy Jimenez are considered the biggest jewels of Chicago’s successful minor league system, which developed several key contributors for last year’s title-winning team. Happ, a switch-hitter who was selected by the Cubs with the ninth pick in the 2015 draft, batted .279 with 15 homers and 73 RBIs over two stops last year, finishing the season with Double-A Tennessee.

“Everybody talks about everybody’s here, the cupboard’s bare, not true,” Maddon said. “There’s some really nice young players coming up and he’s right at the top of the list there, too. I like his swing both sides. I watched him take his groundballs at second base; he’s fine there. I like talking to him. I think he’s very self-confident, not in an arrogant way, but in a really ‘I belong here, I can do this’ kind of a way, and I think that’s going to get him here sooner.”

How soon is a tricky question. With Zobrist, Baez and shortstop Addison Russell, the Cubs could be set for middle infielders for a while. Happ has been taking balls in the outfield, but there doesn’t appear to be a lot of room there, either.

For his part, Happ doesn’t sound like someone who is worried about his major league future.

“It’s great. We have All-Stars at every position,” he said. “It’s an unbelievable time to be a part of this organization, to be able to be around so many guys that have had success in the game.”

Happ, a Pittsburgh native, rose to prominence at the University of Cincinnati, hitting .369 with 14 homers and 44 RBIs in 56 games during his final season with Bearcats. He was named American Athletic Conference Player of the Year in 2015, becoming the first UC player to bring home such an honor since Josh Harrison was the Big East Player of the Year in 2008.

Happ got to know Harrison when the Pittsburgh Pirates infielder returned to campus while he was playing at the school. Kevin Youkilis, a special assistant with the Cubs who played 10 years in the majors, also went to Cincinnati.

“Every time I see him he’s got a C-paw on,” Happ said, “so yeah, we talk Bearcat baseball, Bearcat basketball a lot.”

Happ’s older brother Chris played baseball at Duquesne, and the two moved to Austin, Texas, last January. Happ was in search of warm weather for the offseason, but he also has enjoyed Austin’s eclectic scene.

“It’s an awesome city,” he said.

The Cubs played split-squad games on Saturday and hosted Cleveland on Sunday, leading to a busy weekend for Happ. He got the start at designated hitter and went 1 for 3 with a double and a strikeout in Chicago’s 4-3 victory against Oakland on its first day of spring action. He came in to play second in the sixth against the Indians and went 0 for 2 with another strikeout in a 1-1 tie.

So some good, some stuff to work on.

“I think that defensively, just keep learning from these guys, keep improving,” Happ said. “We’re getting a lot of reps and I think that as I continue to get reps I’ll continue to get better and get to where I need to be. But offensively, just keep being more consistent. I think that that’s the biggest thing.”


Jay Cohen can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/jcohenap

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