A Case for Keeping JA Happ

When the Yankees decided to bring back JA Happ about a year ago, the move made sense. He’d just pitched well for them in a half season after a trade (disaster against the Red Sox in the ALDS notwithstanding) and was lined up to be a back end guy with CC Sabathia. Then the 2019 season happened.

Everyone got hurt for the Yankees–not quite an exaggeration–and that pressed Happ (and Sabathia) into greater service, if you will. Rather than being a fourth or fifth starter, Happ had to act like a second or third starter and it didn’t go well. He ended 2019 with an ERA of 4.91 and a FIP of 5.22 (34 homers!); those aren’t good any way you slice it.

Now, a year and a bad season later, the Yankees are looking to move on from Happ via trade. Such a move would get a not-so-great pitcher off the team and clear money, which could help come trade deadline time. But, like there was for Sonny Gray last year, I think there’s a case to be made for keeping Happ on the team.

For one, there really is no such thing as too much depth. As I’ve written before, the Yankees learned that the hard way last year. Despite signing Gerrit Cole, James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka are still in the Yankee rotation and they’re not exactly shining examples of health. That’s not to mention that Luis Severino is coming off a completely lost year in terms of health. Beyond Happ, there’s some depth, but lots of questions–again about health, guys like Jonathan Loaisiga and Jordan Montgomery. JA Happ-enning to be around could help the Yankees soak up innings in the event of an injury.

If the playoffs are any indication about the way 2020 will go, the ball itself might change into something more normal. If that’s the case, as Bobby has argued Online at times, then maybe Happ isn’t so bad. It may not be totally wise to think in those terms–maybe the ball won’t change–but we can’t ignore it, either.

Lastly, I think there’s a way to distribute Happ to limit potential damage to him. It would hardly be innovative anymore, given how many teams do it, but the Yankees could pair Happ with an opener, making him the second/’bulk’ guy out of the bullpen. If I had my way with this, they’d pair him with Loaisiga for this experiment. The benefits of this set up would be threefold. First, it would limit Happ’s exposure to the tops of opponents’ lineups. Second, it would give Loaisiga a set schedule while still allowing him to get more innings than he would as a one-inning reliever. While Loaisiga’s future probably lies as a reliever, pitching him as a more traditional one-inning reliever could waste his potential given his talent/stuff and expose him to more injury risk–back-to-back games, an inconsistent schedule, etc. Third, a combination of Loaisiga and Happ could throw teams off, considering how different their styles are. By the time they adjust to Loaisiga’s power stuff, Happ will be in the game. By the time they adjust to Happ’s stuff, the Yankees can deploy their power relievers.

May I be painting too rosy a picture here? Sure. Happ is an older pitcher with declining stuff. Even in new roles, those guys don’t always do well. Not everyone can by Mike Mussina or CC Sabathia or Andy Pettitte and learn how to pitch on diminished stuff. Most likely, Happ is traded and the Yankees are better for it. However, if they decide to keep him, that could be justified and they could use him in a creative way.

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8 Comments

  1. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    This post should have been 3 words, Matt – There is none. With Cole, Tanaka, Sevy and Paxton you have 4 strong arms. Monty will be fully recovered and our 5th arm. German will be back and give us another starter. Happ is not needed and should have been traded months ago. In fact he never should have been signed in the first place. Giving a 36 year old pitcher a 3 year deal was dumb and now they can’t get anyone to take him. Gardy only gets a 1 year deal. DJ only got 2. And Happ gets 3. Makes no sense at all.

  2. JG (Ben Francisco)

    You can always use pitching depth

  3. Mungo

    He’s perfectly fine, even sensible, as the 5th starter. He can eat innings and he’s experienced. He’s likely a bounce back candidate of sorts. As the 5th starter his innings and starts will also be quite controllable so that he doesn’t accidentally trigger his 2021 option. The real reason for keeping him is the Yankees do not have a 5th starter for 2020, at least at the beginning. German is out until early June, probably really mid-June as he’ll need to be built up. Lasagna seems likely targeted for the pen. Montgomery? He has big question markets coming off TJS. Might be best to have Monty start in AAA to see what he has and keep him as a depth option. This really shouldn’t be much of a discussion. The only reason it’s up for discussion is because the Yankees are trying to get below the third luxury tax level.

  4. JGNYC

    Being that his vesting option is partially based on starts, it would be incredibly problematic to pair him with an opener. It would be seen as a blatant bad faith effort by the Yankees to circumvent that option.

  5. Emo23

    I think it makes sense to keep him at least until the trade deadline to try building up his trade value, although it can backfire if he pitches like he did the first 5 months of 2019. On the other hand, if he pitches like he did in 2018 he will further stabilize the rotation while allowing Montgomery and others to develop in the minors, and of course there is always the chance that one of our starters go down with an injury, and so keeping Happ also provides some insurance (at least until German comes back).

  6. Joy Illimited

    If they trade him mid-season, he won’t count against the luxury tax, right? It gets counted at the end of the year, unless I’m mistaken. Perhaps they start him until German returns, then trade him.

    • Mungo

      The prorated portion of his contract will. That means they’d still be hit with at least an eight million luxury tax hit if he’s traded by the end of June. I think that keeps them above the luxury tax level they’re trying to avoid, although I’m not exactly sure where they are on that. He pretty much has to be traded by OD for it to make sense.

  7. CountryClub

    If they’re willing to be over the 3rd threshold, there isn’t really a downside to keeping him as the 5th starter. I do think he’ll have a better year than last year. He seemed to figure some things out over the final 6 weeks and I don’t expect the balls to be quite as lively this yr.

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