The Blue Jays struck oil with free agent J.A. Happ in 2016, getting a relative bargain out of the 20-game winner.
When the Blue Jays signed J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million contract on Nov 27, 2015, it came as a surprise to many baseball fans north of the border. The 34-year-old left-hander had been a Blue Jay from 2012-14, but was jettisoned to the Mariners in exchange for Michael Saunders prior to the 2015 season.
The Blue Jays didn’t get any return in 2015 (Saunders was injured for all but nine games), but the Mariners didn’t get much from Happ either, as he had a 4-6 record with a 4.64 ERA before being traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. Once there, he became the latest success story for pitching coach Ray Searage and went 7-2 with a 1.85 ERA in 63.1 innings. The Blue Jays liked what they saw enough to bring him back, and they were handsomely rewarded for their faith in the veteran.
How about everything? Well OK, not everything, but Happ exceeded expectations in nearly every statistical category. He went 20-4 in 32 starts (2nd in AL), threw 195.1 innings (15th), and finished with a 3.18 ERA (6th). His 1.17 WHIP was good for 9th in the AL, and he finished with 4.4 bWAR (3.2 fWAR), also good for 10th in the American League.
In 2016, 1.0 WAR (win above replacement) was worth 7.8 million. Happ made just 10 million in 2016, before seeing his salary rise to 13 annually for the 2017-18 seasons. Based on the bWAR formula, the Blue Jays got roughly 34.3 million worth of value from their free agent. Saying that’s a bargain is equivalent to saying John Gibbons likes to relax.
Happ also went 1-1 with just three earned runs allowed over two starts during the postseason. He didn’t go deep in either outing, but he gave the Blue Jays a chance to win each playoff game he started.
Let’s refer to “bad” as a case against considering him for the Cy Young award this season, otherwise there really wasn’t much to complain about from the former 3rd round pick. If we’re being picky, he did tie his career high in home runs allowed with 22 (also in 2014), but he threw 37 more innings this season.
He also failed to register a complete game or a shutout, which may have hurt his chances at serious consideration for the award. By comparison, Chris Sale had six complete games and one shutout, Corey Kluber finished three games with two shutouts. and Rick Porcello threw three complete games.
All this isn’t to say that Happ was “bad” at anything, he just fell a little shy of the stats needed to be named the AL’s best pitcher.
It’s hard to bet against the guy, especially after he made me eat my words this season.
He has two years and $26 million remaining on his contract, and at the moment it’s one of the better bargains in baseball. It’s likely not fair to expect another 20-win season, but it’s pretty hard to bet against Happ as anything less than a #3 starter. With the stable of pitchers the Blue Jays have in the fold, that’s more than enough to justify his contract.
The AL’s top rotation in 2016 looks full with Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada, Marcus Stroman, and Francisco Liriano set to return, and it’ll be up to manager John Gibbons to decide what order they’ll roll out.
Anything can happen during the offseason, especially with a relatively new front office, but we can fully expect Happ to have another solid season in 2017. He proved me and many other writers wrong in 2016, and there’s no reason to bet against him now.