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J.A. Happ and raising the Yankees’ floor

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There’s not much upside on this deal, and that could be problematic if the Yankees don’t make any more big moves.

New York Yankees v Oakland Athletics Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

J.A. Happ is still a New York Yankee, for at least two more years. The 36-year old left-hander stands to make $51 million if his third season vests, and he’s guaranteed $17 million each of the next two seasons. This means he’s got to be worth about two wins a season to break even, and any more than that would give the Yankees a decent level of surplus value.

On the whole, I’m mostly fine with this deal. It’s the kind of contract you sign for a starter towards the back of your rotation, one who adds depth and can be expected to eat innings – Happ’s averaged 170 innings per season over the last four years, and that includes an injury-hampered 2017. That’s critical on a team where James Paxton, CC Sabathia and Masahiro Tanaka all may not pitch enough to qualify for the ERA title.

The thing that’s chewing at me, though, is that this is a floor-raising deal. Happ’s upside has never been that of a five or six-win pitcher. He’s been a reliable three-win pitcher, notching 3.4 fWAR in 2015, 3.1, 2.8 and 3.2 in successive seasons. There’s nothing wrong with good, consistent production. Yet these aren’t necessarily the kind of players you want to add to a 100-win team, especially when you’ve already executed two floor-raising moves this offseason.

Floor-raising moves are really valuable for the mid-level teams. You know the type; the teams that hover around 80-85 wins, and if everything breaks their way and they get a little luck, they can sneak in as a Wild Card. The 2018 Mariners are a great example of this. They weren’t really an 89-win on true talent, but they were solid enough and got enough luck to get themselves to that level. Floor-raising acquisitions help teams like this because they boost their true talent level and protect against the regression that strikes teams in a long enough sample.

Another good example of floor raising is the Orioles’ last offseason. The team thought they could maybe squeeze one more competitive season before losing Manny Machado and Adam Jones, among others. They were actually fairly busy last winter, agreeing to deals with Alex Cobb, Andrew Cashner, Chris Tillman, Colby Rasmus, Danny Valencia and Pedro Alvarez, among others. It was hard to hate these signings from a floor-raising perspective – Cashner and Cobb, for example, combined for a 128 ERA+ in 2017. Even if they weren’t going to be that good again, they provided some buffer, in theory.

It blew up in their faces, of course, but those are results and right now we’re discussing process. The process was, raise the floor of the team as high as possible and hope for some luck, and maybe you could wiggle out 88 wins or so, which is usually enough to be in position for one of the Wild Card spots. When you win 100 games, though, you don’t worry about the floor, you worry about the ceiling.

Take the 2018 Boston Red Sox. They entered last offseason as two-time defending AL East champions and as co-favorites for the division title once again. Their primary move was signing J.D. Martinez, about as big a swing as you take. Adding a 90th-percentile bat was the perfect move to raise the offensive ceiling of the Red Sox, and we saw how that went for them.

The Milwaukee Brewers did the same thing. After finishing just behind the Cubs in 2017 for the NL Central, the team went out and traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain, boosting both the offensive and defensive ceiling of the team. They rode both players – one the NL MVP – all the way to the division title and game seven of the NLCS.

Even the Yankees boosted their ceiling last winter, trading for Giancarlo Stanton. Say what you will about his 2018, but the team won nine more games in Stanton’s first season, when Stanton himself was probably worth about four wins. Now, the team so far has abandoned that strategy, retaining two-to-three win players in CC Sabathia, Brett Gardner and J.A. Happ.

Those three are the definition of floor-raising. They boost your run suppression and can be penciled in for relatively consistent production barring catastrophic injury, but there’s little upside. Brett Gardner isn’t suddenly putting up a five-win season, and Sabathia isn’t going to pitch 200 innings out of nowhere.

Fortunately, there’s still a couple high-potential pieces out there in Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The offseason is far from over. Heck, the Yankees have made four major moves and one of them, the trade for James Paxton, does raise the ceiling of the team. Paxton has Cy Young upside if he manages to pitch 190 or so innings, and it’s a big reason why I’m so excited to see him pitch in the Bronx.

Still, it’s hard to shake the fact that the offseason strategy is mostly focused on the floor, which is a mistake in my eyes. A team with Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez isn’t one where maybe they win 90 games if they get a little lucky. This is the winter to think big. To take one example, Patrick Corbin’s 2017 was strikingly similar to Happ’s 2018. Happ had a better K/BB rate, but allowed more home runs, and after park-adjusting Corbin’s ERA- and FIP- were 88 and 93, comparing well to Happ’s 85 and 92 this year, while Corbin pitched more innings.

All Corbin did after posting a remarkably similar season to the year Happ did was be one of the five best pitchers in the NL with 6.3 fWAR. This kind of upside is what the team should be adding. We know that Corbin’s less impressive 2017 is basically what the Yankees are banking on with Happ, but a 36-year-old Happ almost certainly can’t equal Corbin’s 2018 output.

Like I said above, the offseason isn’t over. I’ll revise my opinion of the offseason if Machado or Harper is signed alongside the floor-raising moves for Sabathia, Happ and Gardner. If those three and Paxton are the only “impact” moves we see, though, it’s hard to imagine the Yankees maximized the potential of the 2019 team.