Four Yankee starters fall into the “qualified” bucket for starting pitching over the last three seasons. You can probably guess what arms in the rotation have thrown enough innings to be in the bucketL Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia and Sonny Gray. Here they are, plotted respectively by their accrued fWAR since the start of 2015:
But wait! Whom is that red triangle ahead of all four of them? It’s J.A. Happ. Since the start of 2015, Happ has almost silently become a stud in what’s normally an incredibly deep Toronto Blue Jays rotation, ranking 20th in the majors in fWAR. WAR isn’t the be all and end all, of course, but any player that consistently posts four and five win seasons is worth closer examination.
Happ is worth even closer examination since he’s just about the perfect trade target for the Yankees as we edge closer to the non-waiver deadline. The veteran left-hander is on an extremely reasonable contract, owed a total of $13-million in 2018, and by July will be down to about half of that. The Yankees have somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 million to play with at the deadline, leading Happ to be a perfect fit financially. At age 35 and in a walk year, his prospect cost would be far from the price of a Jacob deGrom, and he’s plainly a workhorse, a very good one at that.
At every step of the way this season, Happ’s been better than the average Yankee starter. For those worried about his age and it’s related effectiveness, the only Yankee to be consistently better than him is Severino, who’s rapidly establishing himself as one of the best in all of baseball. A trade for Happ would give the Yankees a very good number two, at a price that would be hard to repeat for any other comparable pitcher.
The time commitment factors in as well. Only under contract through the end of 2018, there’s still a rotation slot open in 2019 for Jordan Montgomery, should he be able to make his return from Tommy John surgery. Maybe Domingo German is the real deal, but a team in the middle of a hotly contested pennant race can’t afford growing pains from their third starter. Trading for Happ would stabilize the rotation immediately and buy the time the Yankees need to further develop a pitcher like German, or Justus Sheffield down in Scranton.
Happ’s addition doesn’t just stabilize the rotation, though. Arguably the Yankees’ best asset is their bullpen, and we’ve seen Aaron Boone be unafraid to go to Chad Green or Dellin Betances in the fifth inning if the starter just doesn’t have it that night. It’s worked out so far for the team with the best record in baseball, but it’s also put a lot of the Yankee relievers on pace for their most innings ever. With Betances, David Robertson, Adam Warren and Aroldis Chapman all over 30, conserving innings for the playoffs, when relievers are ridden even harder, becomes paramount.
Happ is the kind of pitcher that can help preserve the bullpen. This plot shows his outing in each of his starts, along with the Yankee starter’s in the game on the same day - or immediately preceding in the case of a rainout. Happ consistently works deeper than a given Yankee starter, and works almost a half an inning more on average, 6.0 IP vs. 5.2 for the Yankees. Not only is his average outing longer, but the variance is a lot lower, meaning it’s easier for Boone to “pencil in” a set number of innings for a Happ start and count on him to deliver it.
The biggest roadblock to a Happ deal is the division itself. Trades within a division are always rare, and professional pride amongst GMs doesn’t seem to have disappeared even as transactions grow less and less personal all the time. It remains to be seen whether Ross Atkins would even be willing to deal with the Yankees, much less whether he’d slap some sort of AL East-premium price tag onto Happ.
I don’t think the Jays have any rational reason to do that, though, and it comes back again to the contract Happ is on. He’s a free agent come October no matter what the Jays do. Toronto’s not contending this year, but with Vlad Guerrero Jr and the rest of a now-top-five farm system not that far from the majors, it’s not difficult to imagine them being competitive in a year or two. That means their timeline meshes up well with that of a Justus Sheffield or Estevan Florial. Meanwhile, as much as the Yankees have a wide open window, you never know when you’re going to be this good again, so do everything you can to win in 2018.
J.A. Happ checks all the boxes the Yankees claim to have for a starter. He’s really, really good, and works deeper into games than almost anybody in the rotation right now. As a bonus, the commitment is exactly what the Yankees need for the 2018 playoff push. Brian Cashman, this is the guy you want.