In our 2016 Pirates’ Payroll article, we mentioned that the Pirates will have (at least) one opening in their 2016 rotation. A lot of free agent candidates and some trade candidates have been floating in the rumor sphere, especially Mat Latos as Ray Searage’s next project, but why make it that hard? The candidate to fill a spot has been pitching for the Pirates for the past few months in the form of J.A. Happ.
One of the most overused sports writing tropes is the “Here’s Player A, here’s Player B, guess who this is?” I hate playing Guess Who? because I’m not five years old. I’m pretty sure if you’re reading this, you aren’t either, so let’s put some real names and stats out there.
J.A. Happ in 2014’s season with the Blue Jays was in the same zone of performance as Jeff Locke’s 2015 season. You know, the same Jeff Locke that many want to ride on the rails out of town, even though a #4 level pitcher of his caliber is a bargain for his projected $2.7M salary in 2016. In 2014, Happ was a low-end #3 or high-end #4 pitcher, but he continued to disappoint his fans and employers.
While with the Mariners this year, Happ was nothing special and found himself the recipient of a Designated For Assignment before the Pirates rescued him off the scrap heap at the end of July. Here’s the tale of two Happs in 2015:
Now obviously, Happ did not magically turn from a #4 level pitcher into the doppelganger of Kershaw/Arrieta/Greinke. He rode an incredible hot streak while here with the Pirates. But what if Searage and Jim Benedict unlocked something different in him in terms of driving toward the plate, a different arm angle, or improved confidence in an offspeed pitch? What if Happ is now solidly a #3-level pitcher that can consistently deliver 180’ish innings of production? That’s a guy that could easily slide into Burnett’s spot in the rotation for 2016.
So what would it cost to keep Happ? The easy answer is Edinson Volquez‘s 2 year/$20M deal (with a club option for a 3rd year) that he received from the Royals last offseason. But Volquez had a few factors in his favor. First is that Volquez has provided the ability to eat innings (although at times not very well) moreso than Happ. Happ’s career high in innings was 2015’s campaign of 172; Volquez had pitched three seasons over that number (and a fourth at 170) prior to hitting free agency. The second advantage is that Volquez hit free agency going into his age-31 season in 2015, while Happ will be age-33 during the 2016 campaign. That factors into a team’s calculus, no matter if people want to admit it or not.
Additionally, if you break down Volquez’s deal with the Royals, it’s really more of a 2 year/$17M deal:
- 2015 — $7.5M
- 2016 — $9.5M
- 2017 — $10M club option with $3M buyout
The Royals deferred a portion of Volquez’s target dollar amount into the buyout year, which is something that Neal Huntington and the Pirates don’t do. If you want $10M/year on average, that’s what you’ll get, as long as it fits into their budget. They don’t shove money down the line in larger-than-normal buyouts.
So all that said, if Happ regresses to something like a 7.75 K/9, 2.90 BB/9, 180 IP of 4.00 ERA, I would gladly sign up for that. I would offer a 2 yr/$18M deal (with a club option for $9M, $0.5M buyout), with the willingness to go to 2 yr/$22M as my maximum. Rather than make poor Uncle Ray sweat it out on another reclamation starter, wouldn’t it be nice to give him a breather and just re-sign Happ?