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The real reason that Brian Cashman named J.A. Happ the fifth starter

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Banishing Happ to the bullpen before the season starts would likely cause a fight with the MLBPA.

League Championship Series - New York Yankees v Houston Astros - Game Two Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Barring the unforeseen, the first four slots in the Yankees’ rotation have been set firmly in stone since mid-December. The fifth spot, however, seemed to be for grabs, given J.A. Happ’s struggles throughout much of 2019 and swirling rumors that the Yankees were looking to unload his salary. It seemed logical that the team would hope for one of its numerous young arms to step up and take the spot.

  1. While that could still be the case, Brian Cashman has apparently put that to rest, saying that Happ is the Yankees’ fifth starter. Although many fans remember the general manager’s famous line declaring Bubba Crosby the Yankees’ starting center fielder—just before signing Johnny Damon to a four-year deal—there’s evidence to believe that Cashman here is telling the truth. It all comes down to Happ’s vesting option.

According to Spotrac, Happ’s $17 million option for 2021 will vest if he pitches 165 innings or makes 27 starts this season. So long as he avoids the injured list for a significant stretch and remains in the rotation the entire season, he’ll be a good bet to reach at least one of those two milestones. There is a good chance, however, that this is not the Yankees’ desired outcome. They have a number of young starting pitchers who could easily take the job, and that $17 million would be better spent keeping the team’s core intact.

Keeping Happ out of the rotation from the start of the season, however, would not achieve this result, but instead could wind up as a long, protracted battle with the MLBPA. Not giving Happ the inside lane in the race could be construed as an attempt to manipulate the vesting option. For example, it would be in bad faith to have Happ pitch out of the bullpen until it becomes mathematically impossible for him to register those 27 starts necessary while on rotation.

Such a process would furthermore reduce the number of innings that he would pitch, making it an even taller order to hit the 165-inning benchmark. That threshold is no sure thing to begin with, as he’s hit that mark only twice in the last four seasons, and only four times over the course of his career.

Understandably, this is not something that the players’ union would take lightly, and for good reason—it would set a terrible precedent. Should the reverse happen, however, where the Yankees give Happ an opportunity early in the season but he fails to capitalize on it, that would be considered business as usual.

In fact, beginning the season with Happ as the starter is nothing but a win-win situation for the Yankees. If he does not pitch well, the above situation occurs, and the team avoids a second potentially-messy fight with the union (see: Ellsbury, Jacoby). On the other hand, if he pitches well enough to stay in the rotation, the Yankees benefit from the performance of a pitcher on his game. By beginning the season with Happ in the rotation, there’s the chance that everybody wins.