The 2015 season gave Blue Jays fans reasons to give thanks, and a day after (American) Thanksgiving, the team has given us an early Christmas. Perhaps. To this observer, the signing of JA Happ to a three-year deal by Toronto is reason to rejoice, despite naysayers like the Toronto Sun’s Steve Simmons. Here’s why.
Happ, as we know, is a veteran starter who never quite fulfilled the potential of his youth when he was the Phillies wunderkind. As a Jay, he was a decent but totally unspectacular pitcher from 2012- 14; after being traded he was more lacklustre with the all-around disappointing Mariners last season. Then suddenly, he was a trade deadline toss to the Pirates, where under the tutoring of Ray Searage (who’s also helped AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano go on to career bests) he suddenly became the second coming of Steve Carlton . Down the stretch, helping the Pirates make the playoffs he was 7-2 with a stellar 1.85 ERA and better than a K per inning. In five of his Pittsburgh starts he managed to go over 6 innings without allowing an earned run. While pitching in the NL offers an obvious advantage over the DH-using AL, much of the sudden improvement has been attributed to minor adjustments to his arm angle, a slight increase in his fastball velocity (to 92.1 mph) and Happ’s increased trust in said fastball. Seems to me when Happ was rolling in Toronto, he was doing just that; when he wobbled he was nibbling at the corners with a smorgasbord of off-speed pitches. One can hope he remembers the Pittsburgh lessons come spring 2016.
On the Yahoo free agent tracker, and many other similar sites, Happ is listed between Yovanni Gallardo and (once again Blue Jay) Marco Estrada. No David Price or Zack Greinke, but a fully-serviceable, reliable mid-range starter. Happ we would hope will use his maturity and new arm angle learned in Pittsburgh to be better than he was before with Toronto, but he needn’t be David Price. All he really needs to do is match, or one hopes better, last year’s triad of #5’s who preceded the Detroit trade – Aaron Sanchez, Matt Boyd and Felix Doubront. That trio combined for 17 starts, 92 innings with 67 strikeouts, a 5-7 record with 4.76 ERA. Boyd, we’ll recall , though having potential set records for ineptitude in his two Jays games. Happ should easily match and better that- last year, between Seattle and the Pirates, he tossed a career high 172 innings, with an 11-8 record and highly respectable 3.61 ERA. Likewise, by not nibbling so much he reduced his walk rate to a career best 2.3 per 9innings. Also encouraging, in 2013, he managed to pitch better at home in the Rogers Centre than on the road, and on turf limited opponents to a .239 average compared to .265 on grass, despite giving up more flyball outs on the artificial surface. If that trend continued, one might expect better results in ’16 due to the outfield presence of Kevin Pillar. All in all, Happ for his career is 62-61 with a 4.13 ERA and approximately equal effectiveness against left-handers and righties.
Happ doesn’t have to be David Price to help the Jays. He just needs to be reliable and match, or better his career averages to boost the team over the 2015 version. My bet is he can be a good replacement for Mark Buehrle. Still, why am I chuffed about it?
Three reasons really. First, obviously, Happ is a decent pitcher and pitching is going to be the aspect the team needs to improve on in order to win a World Series next year. Happ could be a decent #3 or 4 starter on a championship team.
the other reasons are less blatant. First off, Toronto seems to be issuing a statement to the league. By inking the first significant free agent signing of 2015 (outside of players re-upping with their previous teams), they have shown they have money, they are wanting to improve and they mean business for 2016. This has to be an early present for fans and a challenge for divisonal rivals who may be tempted now to over-spend on even less-spectacular pitching, or max out their credit cards on the upper-tier starters. Jordan Zimmermann to Baltimore for 8 years anybody?
Reason three- Happ could be the forefront of a trend that ushers the early-90s back to Toronto. Once there was a time when Toronto was the place to be in baseball. Fans filled the stadium in record numbers; free agents like Dave Winfield, Jack Morris and Paul Molitor had no hesitation in signing on. Things have changed in the twenty years or so since; crowds have thinned, the Jays had settled into perpetual mediocrity and Ontario looked less appealing to players with choice. No wonder. Even though most Torontonians place the CN Tower as the center of the universe, many Americans have little knowledge of the city. If you’re an American star, going to a foreign country with high tax rates may not look that good, especially if you (incorrectly) imagine the city speaks a foreign language or is a city of igloos.
Happ has played in Philly, Pittsburgh, Houston and Seattle as well as T.O. and chose to go back to Canada.For an Illinois native to choose to go north of the border rather than go to a number of cities closer to home that must have expressed interest in his services, says a lot and should influence other players. That, combined with the glowing testimonies of Josh Donaldson about the enthusiasm of Canadian fans, should encourage other free agents to look more kindly upon the city on Lake Ontario when thrown in the mix against the likes of Chicago or Minneapolis.
JA Happ will help the team and in today’s market, isn’t going to break Rogers Communications bank with his $12M a year stipend. For new GM Tony LaCava, it greatly mitigates the negative start to his tenure that was the senseless Oakland trade that brought back Jesse Chavez.
the opportunity is there for this signing to begin the ascent to the top in 2016. But, as the detractors have pointed out, there is more to be done. Fans won’t be cheering in spring if the Jays roll out a rotation of Happ/Stroman/Estrada/Dickey and Chavez. Happ replaces Buehrle– but they still need a replacement for Price. And I say, why not David Price?
With St Louis and the Cubs (alledgedly DP’s favored destinations) balking at his price and only Boston willing to toss Brinks trucks at him right now, I reiterate my previous column’s idea of offering him a big, one year deal to seal the deal . The difference between 2 millions seats sold for a third place team and 3 and a half million sold plus playoff games would more than make up for the extra $25 or 30M Price would earn. (And if that tag seems too high, there’s still the viable option of trading Troy Tulowitzki and his big contract for prospects, and assuming the team would still have enough offense to win and win often… although that now seems less of a glowing choice with Devon Travis’ shoulder and him being out optimistically til mid-May. that in turn means Ryan Goins might need to be the everyday 2B, leaving Troy more essential for short, but that’s a topic for another day.)