Before the New York Yankees even think about adding pitching, they need to make a decision about J.A. Happ.
We need to have a talk about J.A. Happ.
The New York Yankees are truly between a rock and a hard place with him. Happ is 37 years old, coming off a largely forgettable 2019 and is owed $17 million for next season.
Meanwhile, general manager Brian Cashman plans on adding pitching this offseason. Names like Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg have been thrown around. Both will command contracts over $250 million. No strangers to spending the big bucks, the Yankees could easily outspend other teams for either man.
Except, as has been discussed before, the Yankees’ rotation is already crowded. Luis Severino will get a full season under his belt after a bum shoulder cost him most of 2019. James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka too will be key cogs in the machine.
Unfortunately, unless his domestic violence case forces otherwise, the same must be said for Domingo German.
Throw in Happ and then Jordan Montgomery’s full return from Tommy John surgery, and the Yankees have some decisions to make this winter.
And what does this have to do with J.A. Happ? Well, he just happens to be at the center of it all.
A contract goes wrong
Last offseason, it made sense to re-sign Happ. He went 7-0 in 11 starts with the Yankees in 2018 after being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays. Happ’s solid career numbers against the Red Sox also factored into his getting a two-year, $34 million deal from New York.
Whatever magic followed Happ from the Great White North disappeared quicker than leftovers from Canadian Thanksgiving. Happ went 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA last season and surrendered a career-worst 34 home runs. Save for a hot streak in September, Happ never posted an ERA over four in any month of the season.
Happ was so inconsistent, he was relegated to pitching multiple innings out of the bullpen following an opener late in the season. Sure, he could turn things around in 2020, but Happ has been streaky throughout his career. The Yankees’ rotation needs consistency.
And the troubles don’t stop at 2020. J.A. Happ’s contract with the Yankees also holds a $17 million vesting option for 2021, kicking in if he pitches 165 innings and/or makes 27 starts. Granted, the Yankees can use this to their advantage by only using Happ behind an opener. Still, this could breed resentment on Happ’s end, and the last thing this young team needs is disorder in its house.
What to do?
It won’t be easy but if the Yankees are serious about improving the pitching staff, J.A. Happ needs to be traded. A 28th World Series ring won’t come without consistent pitching, and Happ just has the bad luck to be the weak link in New York’s rotation.
And how would the Yankees convince a team to take on Happ’s contract? Well, this brings the conversation back to Domingo German, who is still on leave for alleged domestic violence. One way or another, he’s probably getting suspended. Depending on how long he’s out, perhaps the Yankees can package German in a potential Happ trade.
In return, the Yankees would receive some minor league talent and also cover half of Happ’s remaining guaranteed salary. It’s an unconventional idea, but one crazy enough to work.
Think about it. German’s value will be lower for reasons outlined above, but he still won 18 games in 2019. There will be at least one team willing to take him on despite his off-field issues. The Yankees did the same thing in trading for closer Aroldis Chapman in 2015.
A deal involving Happ on German could, all at once, offload a heavy contract, restock the minor league system, and free up money to sign a free agent arm.
Even if it “only” results in someone like righty Zack Wheeler putting on the pinstripes instead of Cole or Strasburg, it will be worth it.
All in all, the only one who can decide the Yankees’ course this offseason is Brian Cashman. He’s shrewd and meticulous, almost to a fault, and the last thing he’ll do is tip his hand. Not even Teddy KGB will get a read on Cashman until well after he makes his first move. The Yankees’ GM is just that good.
But whatever Cashman does, it doesn’t take away from the Yankees’ needing to make a decision on J.A. Happ soon. Jordan Montgomery deserves a full season removed from injury and neither Paxton, Tanaka, or Severino are going anywhere. This leaves Happ as the odd man out.
It will take a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, but the Yankees can make a deal involving him. He can still eat innings despite his age and posted a sub-2.00 ERA in September, plus a mark of 2.45 in the playoffs.
The way this writer sees it, the Yankees have two options. They can either keep Happ and German and hope for better results and behavior in 2020, or they can go for the kill.
Your move, Cashman.