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How the Yankees can facilitate a J.A. Happ trade

The Yankees want to stay under the highest luxury-tax threshold, and they might need to get creative

MLB: ALDS-Minnesota Twins at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

In today’s MLB, contracts are almost as important as talent for some clubs. Yes, they seek quality major leaguers, but at what cost? Some clubs can’t afford the biggest and more prominent free agents, and that’s why they want players with years of team control.

Controllable players are often young, which is also desirable for rebuilding teams. It’s all about best aligning the contention window with talent and resources.

What does it have to do with Yankees starter J.A. Happ and a possible trade later down the road? We’ll review the situation but, first, there are some concepts to explain.

The team control game

A player’s first three seasons are deemed as “pre-arbitration years”, over which he will be paid near the league minimum.

The three subsequent years (in most cases) will be the arbitration seasons, in which the player will start receiving more salary based on his performance and other variables. When a player is, contractually, in one of those six combined years, he is still under “team control.”

For teams, it is a desirable development since these players are usually cheaper than those in the open market. A talented rookie or second-year player that proves he belongs in the bigs is gold.

The Mets-Mariners trade: a recent example

That is why teams have been considering the idea of attaching a young, controllable player to an undesirable contract that they want to unload. That way, the club on the receiving end of the trade would have more incentive than just taking on a bad contract.

For example, the Seattle Mariners wanted nothing to do with Robinson Cano’s albatross contract ($24 million per season until 2023) prior to the 2019 season. In order to receive something in return, they had to attach him to Edwin Diaz, one of the best relievers in the league at the time and earning the league minimum in 2019.

Including Diaz in the deal netted the M’s two very good, potentially game-changing prospects in outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Justin Dunn, plus relievers Anthony Swarzak and Gerson Bautista and also Jay Bruce, another pricey contract (but not nearly as bad as Cano’s) that Seattle later flipped away.

The Mariners traded Cano and Diaz and sent $20 million to the Mets to help cover Cano’s pact.

Adapting the strategy to the Happ situation

Happ didn’t have a good season in 2019 with the Yankees. He struggled to the tune of a 4.91 ERA and a 5.22 FIP in 161.1 frames. His K/9 sharply decreased from 2018’s 9.78 to last season’s 7.81 mark.

He was good in 2018, though, with a 3.65 ERA and a 3.98 FIP in 177.2 innings. He accumulated 3.0 fWAR that season. That’s why he could be an attractive option for a pitching-starved team like the Blue Jays, White Sox or Angels, for example. He has been good recently and may benefit from a change of scenery. Not only that, but Happ also seemed to figure something out near the end of the 2019 season, as he had a 1.65 ERA in September with a 3.10 FIP and 9.22 K/9.

But since he is old—37—and expensive—$17 million in 2020 with a vesting option for 2021—the Yankees may need to get creative in order to unload him.

What could the Yankees do?

Thankfully, the Yankees have plenty of pitching prospects and young hurlers who have already made their debuts. Albert Abreu, Jonathan Loaisiga, Mike King, Deivi Garcia, Luis Gil, Brooks Kriske, Luis Medina, Nick Nelson and Miguel Yajure are all talented, controllable and on the 40-man rosters. Other arms such as Roansy Contreras, Clarke Schmidt, Yoendrys Gomez, Frank German and more could be enticing for other clubs.

Are there any impact bats to pair with Happ? Among major leaguers, Clint Frazier and Miguel Andujar come to mind but the Yankees might get more value from them if they deal them separately. The Bombers’ system also has some position players that could be paired with Happ.

Of course, trading Happ and, say, King won’t bring the Yankees a Kelenic-type prospect. But it may be a clever way of shedding the $17 million attached to Happ and getting something of value in return, like a reliever or a prospect.

The Yankees would open a path for the younger Jordan Montgomery to fill the fifth-starter spot, at least until Domingo German returns from suspension. The other team would get two capable starting pitchers, one of them young and controllable, as King or someone and Happ would have an opportunity for established roles. Everybody wins.

All things considered, there appears to be no guaranteed innings for J.A. Happ in the Yankees’ rotation unless injury strikes. The Bombers could apply the pairing strategy to unload as much of his salary as they can in their quest to stay under the $248 million luxury tax threshold, which would imply the highest penalty.