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Yankees potential trade target: J.A. Happ update

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J.A. Happ looked like a solid target for the Yankees, but has struggled in recent starts. Could he still make sense?

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

With the Yankees seemingly “fading” in the race for Manny Machado, the focus is sure to shift back to the team’s pursuit of pitching. There’s no team in baseball that couldn’t use a little more pitching, and in the Yankees’ case, it’s long seemed clear that another starter should be in order.

With most starters with long-term team control, such as Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Chris Archer, apparently unavailable, a veteran rental has looked like the Yankees’ best option. Unfortunately, this is just not the trade market to need a veteran starting pitcher. There’s no 2008 CC Sabathia or 2015 David Price on the market. Instead, we have the likes of the declining Cole Hamels, or Tyson Ross.

J.A. Happ has stood out, though. The 35-year-old lefty has quietly been one of the American League’s better pitchers for years now. Last month, Josh summed up his bona fides in imploring the Yankees to go out and get Happ. With ERA’s about in the mid-threes the past three seasons and a fairly clean bill of health, Happ seemed like a solid mid-rotation pitcher to add when both Jordan Montgomery and Masahiro Tanaka ran into injury trouble.

In the time since Josh’s post, however, Happ has gotten shelled. He has made four starts with an 8.00 ERA since June 25th. Things are even uglier than that ERA makes them appear: he gave up five runs, all unearned, in 3.2 innings in his last outing, meaning he’s actually allowed 21 runs over his past 18 innings. His ERA on the season has ballooned from 3.56 to 4.29.

To be fair to Happ, he’s probably been a bit unfortunate. That four-start stretch included outings against the Astros, Red Sox, and Yankees, three of the absolute best offenses in the league. His LOB% over that stretch was just over 50%, far below league average, meaning he was somewhat unlucky in terms of sequencing of events. His average exit velocity was 88 mph, actually a little lower than his figure for the season overall.

Regardless, Happ looks a little less tempting after getting shelled for a few starts. On the other hand, while Happ has done little to make himself more alluring recently, the Yankees’ changing situation has.

On June 20th, the Yankees were 49-22. They were two games up on the Red Sox, and were 11.5 games clear of the second Wild Card spot in the AL. Even with a hole in their rotation, it was quite possible at the time the Yankees could just roll with what they had to the division title. The Blue Jays had already faded to 34-39, but weren’t quite completely dead in the playoff race, and probably weren’t looking to actively deal just yet.

Now, the Yankees are in a precarious position. They’re 4.5 games back of Boston in the division, and eight games clear of the second Wild Card. FanGraphs no longer estimates their playoff odds at 100% (okay, their odds have only fallen to 99.9%). The Blue Jays are now hopelessly out of it, 14 games back in the Wild Card race and with 0.3% playoff odds.

Moreover, Domingo German, the starter most likely to be replaced by an in-season upgrade, has struggled. Similar to Happ, German has a 7.85 ERA in 18.1 innings since June 24th. German’s ugly 5.49 ERA on the season belies some of his shinier statistics (his 10.5 K/9, for instance), but if he keeps hemorrhaging runs, the Yankees will almost be forced to act.

So, while Happ has actively made himself less appealing, the Yankees’ place in the standings and the performance of their starters has made them more likely to consider someone like Happ. FanGraphs’ projections peg Happ for a solid 1.2 WAR in 74 innings the rest of the way. A one-win boost like that looks much more enticing now that the Yankees have lost ground in the playoff race and watched German get bombed a couple more times.

In truth, there’s probably no panacea for the Yankees on the trade market. If they’re not going to have any luck in prying someone like deGrom from the Mets, whoever else they find to plug into the rotation will feel a tad underwhelming. Even after his recent struggles, though, Happ could still help. His longer track record is strong. He’s actually thrown harder recently, a positive sign for an older player. With the Yankees in a tight spot, Happ still makes some sense down the stretch.