Finding a home for JA Happ

When the Yankees re-signed JA Happ after trading for him in 2018, the thought was that he’d be a serviceable mid or back of the rotation starter in 2019 and 2020. That didn’t prove to be the case this year. Instead, the veteran had a 4.91 ERA (5.22 FIP, 6.00 DRA) in 161 1/3 innings. Now, it’s possible that the Yankees will look to trade him this winter for luxury tax relief. Especially if they want to avoid the top tier and sign someone like Gerrit Cole.

It won’t be easy to move Happ, however. He’s due $17 million next year, and if he makes 27 starts or throws 165 innings in 2020, his 2021 vesting option becomes guaranteed (another $17 million). Not many teams will be keen to take on his salary without the Yankees sweetening the pot. Throwing in a prospect would help, similar to the Chase Headley and Bryan Mitchell trade to San Diego a few years ago.

In our offseason plan, we proposed trading Happ, Albert Abreu, and $6 million to the White Sox for outfielder Adam Engel. Such a move would shed $11 million from the Yankees’ real dollar payroll and competitive balance tax payroll. With that in mind, let’s take a look at why the White Sox and other ballclubs make sense as destinations for Happ.

In need of innings eaters: White Sox, Angels, Rangers, Blue Jays

White Sox

The south siders have Lucas Giolito and not much else in the rotation. Carlos Rodon had Tommy John surgery back in May and likely won’t return until late next year the latest. Iván Nova is a free agent. Michael Kopech will just be returning from TJS. Others like Dylan Cease, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dylan Covey don’t inspire much confidence (at least not yet). In other words, the ChiSox need some warm bodies to eat innings in their rotation.

Aside from a thin starting staff, Chicago is in position to spend and should be willing to “buy” a prospect from the Yankees by taking on Happ. I’m about to compare apples and oranges here, but if they were trying really hard for Manny Machado last winter, surely they have the budget to take on some or all of Happ’s deal. And hey, maybe Happ bounces back and pitches better for them.

Angels

Here’s another team that needs starting pitchers. They tragically lost their best starter last year in Tyler Skaggs. Meanwhile, Andrew Heaney hasn’t developed into the guy they had hoped. The team’s most promising pitcher in 2019, Griffin Canning, ended the year on the injured list because of elbow inflammation. Just how dire are things? No one made more starts (18) or threw more innings (95 1/3) than the aforementioned Heaney. The good news is that Shohei Ohtani should be back on the mound in 2020, but even if they land Cole or another big fish, they’ll still need another starter or two.

Billy Eppler, the Angels’ GM, is a former Yankees executive and theoretically still has a few players he likes in the Yankees’ farm system. Perhaps his familiarity, along with an obvious need, could make the Halos a match for Happ.

Rangers

Texas’s rotation was pretty top-heavy this season. Mike Minor and Lance Lynn were fantastic, but everyone else was pretty meh. Those two veterans accounted for 11.0 of the 11.9 fWAR recorded in Texas last year.

With a new ballpark next season, the prevailing thought is that the Rangers will be big players in free agency this winter. Perhaps that means they’re willing to take on Happ too, especially because the back end of their rotation is in need.

Blue Jays

Happ’s already had success in Toronto, so a reunion could make sense. You’ll recall that the Yankees acquired Happ from Toronto mid-2018 in exchange for Brandon Drury and Billy McKinney.

The Jays also need serious help in the rotation. Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are no longer with the team, while the rest of the cast is pretty questionable. There are some guys with upside there, such as Anthony Kay and hyped prospect Nate Pearson, but they have just about no depth. Happ helps in that regard, and his history with the club could help too.

Big ballparks: Tigers, Padres, Giants, and Marlins, Royals

Tigers

Just ask Nick Castellanos about how difficult it is to hit a homer in Detroit. Happ, a fly ball pitcher, could recover some of his lost luster in a ballpark like that, even if the juiced ball returns in 2020.

Detroit won only 47 games last season, so Happ isn’t going to lift them to new heights or anything. However, maybe he’s a guy that they can turn into a trade chip next summer. Such a thing could net them multiple prospects, now (from the Yankees) and later (from another club).

Padres

Petco Park is a pitcher’s dream. Moreover, pitching in the National League could help Happ too. San Diego doesn’t exactly need starting pitching, especially if they win the Stephen Strasburg sweepstakes, but Happ still seems like a good fit in that ballpark. And hey, maybe they’ll do something weird like they did with Headley/Mitchell and take on all of the salary for not much of a return. The Yankees can always hope, I guess.

Giants

Again, another pitcher’s park for Happ’s fly balls to die in. San Francisco could also use some starting depth, as they could lose Madison Bumgarner in free agency. Jeff Samardzija and Jonny Cueto are the only other notable rotation incumbents at the moment. And similar to Detroit: if Happ rebuilds his value, the Giants could move him for future chips at the deadline.

Marlins

Miami could be the perfect storm for Happ. Not only does their home field make for friendly confines, but they also could use a warm body in the rotation and have familiarity with the Yankees’ system to boot.

Aside from Sandy Alcantara, Miami didn’t get much from its rotation last year. Ex-Yankee Caleb Smith took a step back while no one else in particular stepped up. Happ could offer some stability and even upside in the ballpark, while later turning into a prospect in a midsummer swap. Plus, with ex-Yankee front office member Gary Denbo directing the Marlins’ player development and scouting departments, there are surely some Baby Bombers he would like to bring down south. The just-hired Hadi Raad could play a part in that too.

Royals

Jakob Junis and Brad Keller are interesting enough, and maybe Danny Duffy still has something left, but the Royals could use a workhorse on their staff. Having a bigger ballpark makes a guy like Happ more attractive too. And, since they’re in rebuild mode, they should be motivated to build up their prospect base, which may make them a match here.

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2 Comments

  1. RetroRob

    It may not be quite as difficult to trade Happ as we’re assuming, as long as the Yankees offset some salary. I’m not saying it will be easy, but there will be a market for him as a lefty starter who a track record of success. Even in an off year, he still ate up 161 innings, so ther value there.

    The acquiring team knows the commitment to him is only for a season. He does have an option that will trigger with 165 innings or 27 starts, but he’s eclipsed the former only four times in the last 11 seasons, one year barely by a single inning. He’s eclipsed the starts trigger five times in 11 seasons, but four of the last five years, so that could be an issue. Likely not, however, as he’s passed his peak and would be slotted as more of a back-end starter. Preventing the trigger would be easy without raising eyebrows as more innings have been shifted to the bullpen and only front-end starters are guaranteed to accumulate enough starts and/or innings that would trigger an option like Happ’s. They could even pair him with an opener, although that could lead to his agent filing a grievance. Not sure it would be successful as the opener predates Happ signing his contract, and the opener was used heavily (including by the Yankees) in 2019, but teams may want to avoid the potential of a grievance. Regardless, he’d have to revert to his form a couple seasons back for the option to become an issue, and if does, many teams would likely be fine with him returning.

    A healthy lefty starter with recent success will find interest if the Yankees pay him down to the 8-10 million range, especially once the market thins after free-agent signings. That would open up $7-9 million in cap space. Question is, if the Yankees aren’t going after a big name starter, do they want to bother? Happ was probably hurt as much as any pitcher by the super ball last season. If MLB deadens the ball slightly, he’s a decent bounce-back candidate. Maybe the Yankees would rather hold the depth. If not, another team to consider is the Twins. They’re losing a starter and their home park is more forgiving to fly-ball pitchers, especially if the ball returns to pre-2019 levels. The two teams have made trades.

  2. DJ Lemeddardhieu

    The only way to find a different home for Happ is to invent a time machine, generate 1.21 gigawatz and go back and never sign him, Derek. Not a single godforsaken soul is going to take on that contract for a 38 year old 5 ERA, That was one of the worst contracts Cashman has ever made, right up there with Pavano, Wright and Giambi. He may eat innings but they’re bad innings. And ballpark size don’t matter either. You could create a ballpark that’s 500 feet down the lines and 700 feet to center and he’d still be awful. Nobody’s gonna take the guy just like nobody’s gonna take Ellsbury. I’d just DFA him and eat the contract. Or give it to Gary and have him eat it.

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