The free agent market is flush with a usually scarce commodity this winter: high-end starting pitching. In exchange for cash and a few draft picks, due to the qualifying offer compensation, an ace like Gerrit Cole and postseason stars like Stephen Strasburg and Madison Bumgarner are there for the taking.
While the Yankees are the richest team in the game as far an ownership is concerned, there is still a limit to the spending of the organization. With the most desirable pitchers expected to command over $30 million a season, and even the next tier expected to be above $18 million, Brian Cashman is likely to be limited in where he can spend. To open up more room he needs to aggressively pursue trading J.A. Happ and his $17 million salary for 2020.
The Yankees have found ways to deal salary in the past. Following the 2017 season, the Yankees moved third baseman Chase Headley and his $13 million salary to a rebuilding San Diego club that was able to absorb that salary. Entering his age-34 season, Headley was coming off a solid season where he produced a 105 wRC+ and 2.0 fWAR. The Yankees saw high-end infield talent like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres ready to reach the majors in 2018, and looked for an opportunity to move Headley’s money as they sought to get under the luxury tax threshold.
With only one year left on his deal, Headley was the price that San Diego had to pay in order to get right-handed pitcher Bryan Mitchell in the deal. Mitchell was a live arm that had yet to establish himself at the major-league level. He had moved up and down from the minors over the four previous seasons seeing working as a swing man, racking up 98 unimpressive innings for the Yankees. San Diego had seen enough to give Mitchell a shot, and the deal was made for the Padres to absorb the Headley’s salary. The move saved the Yankees money, and the Friars were able to take a flyer on a young pitcher during a rebuilding season.
Last offseason, in their bid to contend in the National League, the Mets absorbed much of Robinson Cano’s contract in their effort to acquire Edwin Diaz coming off 57-save season for the Seattle Mariners. The Mets took on five years of Cano’s expensive contract, coming off a season where he served a PED suspension, and moved several very good prospects in Jared Kalenic, and Justin Dunn to Seattle all to acquire Diaz. The Mets made their moves with the intention of winning in 2019, far from the motives of the Padres when they acquired Headley.
Happ is fresh off a seasons of struggles, and comes with a $17 million price tag for 2020. Despite seeing his home-run rate rise to a career high, he still posted a 1.3 fWAR on the season while throwing 161.1 innings. He also improved down the stretch, holding opponents to a .188 BAA and 0.99 WHIP over his last five starts, showing that there could still be some life in the 37 year-olds arm.
The southpaw has averaged 168 innings a season since 2014, while pitching to a 109 ERA+. Even in last season’s disaster of a year, Happ had an ERA- of 107 and would have fit in the back end of almost any rotation in baseball. Many teams are looking for starting pitching, and they may not be able to pay the price or commit to the years those on the open market will command. Not only will Happ fill the need for a veteran arm, with the possibility of a bounce-back season, but he is likely coming either for a very low level prospect, or with another player in return.
What kind of player would the Yankees have to attach to Happ in order for a team to take his full value? Luis Cessa and Jonathan Holder come to mind. Both have flashed potential, but also shown to be inconsistent at the major league level. Clint Frazier is another player who could be tied to Happ, but I think the Yankees would be expecting back a solid prospect for any deal that Frazier is involved in.
From the minor league side of the system, recent additions to the 40 man roster Brooks Kriske and Miguel Yajure are also players on the rise that would interest teams. Both are young right handed pitchers in a Yankees system stocked with right-handed pitchers.
Numerous teams fit the category of rebuilding clubs that could take Happ’s money on to throw innings while surrounded by young starters. Seattle, Miami, Kansas City, and Detroit are four that come to mind as teams that have stripped down their salaries, and might be willing to grab Happ’s contract for the right player or prospect attached to him.
Meanwhile, teams like San Diego, Texas and the Chicago White Sox are emerging from years of rebuilding and looking to contend in 2020. Happ can provide them with a veteran presence at the back end of a rotation that is then either expendable once their young arms prove their worth, or a valued veteran if he can rebound with a strong season.
While clearing Happ’s salary from the books, Yankees fans would be expecting the team to go even harder for Cole or Strasburg this offseason. While that is a possibility, they could also use the opportunity to upgrade the spot in the rotation for roughly the same cost. It is just as likely is that the Yankees would target a player like Zack Wheeler who is projecting to only cost a few million dollars more on a yearly basis than Happ would next season. Either way the Yankees should be actively seeking to move Happ, even if the cost is a mid-level prospect. The opportunity to upgrade the position is out there right in free agency.