Early in the offseason, few things felt like certainties regarding the Yankees’ plans. Sure, they were quickly linked to Gerrit Cole, but at the outset, it wasn’t clear exactly how hard the team would push, especially after their half-hearted free-agent chases last winter.
The only things that seemed obvious were the team’s desire to re-sign Brett Gardner to a short-term deal, and its inclination to deal J.A. Happ at the earliest possible convenience. After Happ’s poor performance in 2019, and given his $17 million salary for 2020 and vesting option for 2021, the Yankees wanted to clear roster space and save money by dumping the veteran left-hander on some willing team.
In the first weeks of December, Joel Sherman of the New York Post reported the Yankees were “actively shopping” Happ in advance of a potential Gerrit Cole signing. SNY’s Andy Martino linked Happ and the Yankees to the starter-needy Brewers. It appeared there was momentum for a deal to get done at the Winter Meetings.
The rumors have completely dried up since then. After weeks of silence on the Happ front, it’s fair to wonder what the Yankees’ plan is here. Are they still looking to shop him, with spring training looming just a few weeks away? Do they plan to keep him, and lock him into the fifth-starter role? Could they keep him and toss him into a competition for that spot?
At this point in the offseason, the dust has mostly settled. Teams have set their plans for 2020, and most clubs that looked like they needed starting pitching have made moves to address those needs. It’s a little harder to see where Happ would fit around the league.
Martino mentioned the Brewers, but Milwaukee signed Josh Lindbloom from Korea, traded for Eric Lauer, and took a flyer on Brett Anderson. The Angels seemed like a logical suitor as well, but they too have have been active. Anaheim signed Julio Teheran, traded for Dylan Bundy, and picked up Matt Andriese. Neither of these teams are loaded with pitching, but each have filled out their rotations to the extent that a middling veteran like Happ no longer holds much appeal.
The same could be said for the rest of the AL’s middle class. The Blue Jays inked Hyun-jin Ryu to a big-money deal, and added depth in Tanner Roark and Chase Anderson. The White Sox raised their rotation’s floor with Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez. Again, none of these teams took big swings, with the possible exception of Ryu, but they seemingly took themselves out of the market for Happ with a series of solid moves.
Few teams stand out as still in need of pitching and open to taking on some of Happ’s salary. The Athletics look thin in the rotation, and were reduced to using bullpen games almost constantly just last year, but Oakland would likely balk at paying virtually any of Happ’s money. Perhaps the Phillies, who signed Zack Wheeler but still project to have one the worst rotations among teams with playoff hopes, would consider a reunion with Happ.
With far fewer clear suitors out there, the Yankees might need to attach a better prospect, or more money, than they anticipated when they felt out Happ’s market weeks ago. It’s certainly still plausible they find someone open to taking on Happ in exchange for also gaining a low-level prospect, as it only takes one team, but it looks nothing like the lock it seemed back during the winter meetings.
Consequently, would the Yankees be better off just keeping Happ? He left a poor taste in fans’ mouths last year, as he struggled to a 90 ERA+ in 161.1 innings thanks to problems with the long ball. Yet if the market for the lefty has dried up to the point that moving off him isn’t so simple, the Yankees should probably consider just holding on for the purposes of depth.
The Yankees have four obvious starters in their top five, and currently have Happ, Jonathan Loaisiga, Jordan Montgomery, and prospects Deivi Garcia and Michael King slated to compete for a back-end spot. Given how many starters the average team now needs to navigate a 162-game season, the Yankees would stand to benefit from keeping Happ’s brand of bland mediocrity around.
Currently, Steamer projects Happ for a 4.54 ERA in 100 innings, essentially average. ZiPS agrees, pegging him for a 4.43 ERA in 138 innings. That’s fine fifth-starter production, the kind that could help the Yankees avoid having to go to a four-man rotation with frequent bullpen games as they did last summer.
Moreover, if Happ stuck around, it would indicate a willingness to pay the luxury tax that we haven’t yet seen from ownership. As things stand, the Yankees’ CBT payroll sits at $258 million, per Cot’s Contracts. The final luxury tax threshold comes in at $248 million. The only reasonable move the Yankees can make to duck that threshold is to move most of Happ’s salary.
If the team decided to simply bite the bullet and pay Happ a quality salary for average play, they’d be placing a priority on keeping talent in the building over maximizing efficiency. They’d set the pace for the rest of the league in terms of spending on player payroll. As these are the New York Yankees, setting the pace is a standard we should hold the team to.
Maybe Brian Cashman has a move up his sleeve to dump Happ, similar to how he dropped Chase Headley on the Padres two years ago by attaching Bryan Mitchell. At this point, I’d almost be happy to see Happ back in pinstripes, not because he’s a great pitcher, but because he can provide useful depth, and proof that the Yankees are willing to truly spend like the Yankees.