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What can J.A. Happ offer the Yankees if he isn’t traded?

Happ labored through a brutal 2019, but his improvement down the stretch could offer the slightest glimmer of hope.

MLB: ALCS-New York Yankees at Houston Astros Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s far from a secret that J.A. Happ was bad in 2019. It’s also not much of a secret that the Yankees appear to be searching for a potential trade partner that would allow them to dump Happ ahead of the 2020 season, and no longer be on the hook for the final year of his two-year, $34 million deal.

Should Happ be traded, the fifth starter in the Yankees’ rotation would likely be either Jordan Montgomery or Domingo German, depending on a potential suspension that still has to be settled by the league. But what if Happ isn’t dealt? What if a suitor isn’t found, and Happ’s money and arm are still with the Yankees? Does he become the clear fifth starter, or would a spring competition be in the cards?

If Happ pitches to his overall 2019 numbers, it shouldn’t be too much of a contest. He would be out of the rotation and be the highest paid mop-up reliever in the league. However, if Happ can pitch to the efficiency he had down the stretch of last season, then he suddenly would be a very intriguing fifth starter in a rotation that has already deepened with the signing of Gerrit Cole and a (hopefully) healthy Luis Severino.

Again, Happ’s numbers overall were flat-out ugly last season. To recap, he posted a 5.22 FIP, easily the worst mark of his career, and allowed 1.9 home runs per nine innings, also a career worst. He just barely avoided allowing a full hit per nine innings (he finished with a mark of 8.9), and was out of the discussion for a playoff rotation spot before the season ended.

Through the final month of the season, in which Happ still logged a full workload of 27.1 innings, the lefty was actually very impressive. After opponents slugged .497 off of Happ from April through August, he lowered that mark to just .313 in September, allowing only five runs and two dingers (compared to a dizzying eight in the month of August). His 0.66 home runs per nine innings was easily his lowest monthly mark of the season (his next lowest was 1.44 in July), and his 4.19 xFIP was also his best of the season.

Data courtesy of Statcast

What was key for Happ in September was the location of his fastball, which has normally been an effective pitch given the high spin rate that made him an intriguing trade target for the Yanks in 2018. Happ got more swings in the zone on his fastball (73.3 percent) in September than any other month last season, while also getting a swing and miss rate of 34.6 on the heater, more than double what he posted just two months before.

It should also be noted that Happ was hardly feasting on weak lineups down the stretch. In the final month, he faced the A’s, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Rays and Tigers (fine, that last one isn’t very impressive). It was still a brutal season for Happ, and it’s highly unlikely he’ll return to the efficiency he had for the Yankees down the stretch in 2018, but his final month of 2019 looked much more like that version of Happ Yankee fans first saw after he arrived.

Happ is still likely to be traded, but if he isn’t, he’ll obviously be considered for the fifth spot in the rotation, and if he pitches like he did over the final month of last season, he’ll be a perfectly suitable starter for the back end of the rotation.