With Stephen Strasburg returning to the Washington Nationals on a record-breaking deal, the belief at this week’s Winter Meetings is that Gerrit Cole will soon find a home as well.
That’s largely believed to be with the New York Yankees, who were at least expected to make a formal offer to Cole this week. But in order to add Cole, the Yankees may first need to make room for him -- both in the rotation and in the payroll.
That’s leading to plenty of trade speculation over the past couple days over one of their current starters -- veteran J.A. Happ.
The 37-year-old left-hander is slated to earn $17 million this season (with another $17 million for the 2021 season as part of a vesting option if he starts 27 games or reaches 165 innings). Moving that money would help the Yankees soften the blow of what’s almost assuredly going to be a record pitching contract for Cole, while also possibly getting out from underneath a deal that may have been made out of desperation last year.
Happ originally came to the Yankees from Toronto as part of a trade deadline deal in July 2018, in the midst of a late-career All-Star season. He pitched very well for New York down the stretch, putting up a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts for the Yankees, helping them into the playoffs.
Last winter’s pitching market was extremely thin, allowing Happ to pull in a high annual salary despite his advancing age. The then-36-year-old ended up signing the two-year, $34 million deal with the Yankees with the very attainable vesting third year around this time last year.
But Happ’s first full year in the Bronx left something to be desired. Never a hard thrower, Happ seemed to have been hurt by the combination of 2019’s more aerodynamic baseball and pitching in the hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, as he gave up 34 home runs in 161.1 innings over 31 appearances (30 starts) this past year, seeing his ERA spike to 4.91. Because of the home run problem his other ERA-similar numbers (5.22 FIP, 6.00 DRA) were even more scary.
The optimism lies in his 2018 season, when he was worth a combined 3 fWAR for the Jays and Yankees -- his fourth straight season at or near 3 fWAR -- when he had a much more appealing 3.53 ERA/3.76 FIP/3.93 DRA with a much more normal 1.37 HR/9 (as opposed to 1.90 in 2019, and his career average of 1.19).
If the league ends up going back to the “old” ball, there’s a chance Happ’s performance could head back towards normal -- but he’ll still be an aging pitcher that doesn’t throw hard, meaning there’s a good chance he’s still just plain hittable. Still, there appears to be plenty of trade interest in him as the Yankees try to reduce their luxury tax bill, even if they don’t end up landing Cole.
Plenty of National League teams would like J.A. Happ. Toronto has also inquired about yet another Happ term.— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) December 10, 2019
Brewers another team to watch on Happ— Andy Martino (@martinonyc) December 10, 2019
The Brewers have long been rumored to be interested in Happ, going back to when he was available via trade from Toronto and last winter when he was a free agent.
The $17 million figure for 2019 would seem to be prohibitive for the Brewers, but one would imagine the Yankees would be willing to eat some money (or at least send some money to cover for the potential of the option vesting) if they get a decent enough return in a trade. There may be a limit to that, though — if trading Happ is about saving payroll space more than anything, it seems unlikely they’d be willing to pitch in close to $10 million.
Even with his home run problems in 2019, Happ was able to put up a 1.3 fWAR, which is roughly what Chase Anderson provided the Brewers and was comparable to what Adrian Houser (1.6), Zach Davies (1.6) and Gio Gonzalez (1.6) provided in varying levels of innings in the rotation.
Happ could be a decent and dependable (or at least predictable, in knowing what you get) back-of-rotation piece for the Brewers. It’s just a matter of how much money David Stearns would be willing to take on.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus