Cole’s Contract Opens Door for Happ Trade by Devan Fink December 12, 2019 Just as an earthquake can send shockwaves across a region for days, a high-magnitude free agent signing can create ripple effects for other teams around baseball. On Tuesday, the Yankees agreed to sign Gerrit Cole to the richest pitching contract in history, getting their man for $324 million over nine years. While the top free agent is now officially off the board, the decision-makers in front offices across the league aren’t resting quite yet. In fact, the Yankees began preparing for the reality of signing Cole before the deal was even completed, with Joel Sherman reporting on Monday that the team is “actively” trying to trade J.A. Happ. Happ is entering the second year of a two-year, $34 million contract, meaning that he will count for $17 million for luxury tax purposes. We currently project the Yankees’ 2020 payroll to be approximately $250 million, already putting them above the $208 million tax threshold. Even if the Yankees clear Happ’s salary in a trade, Cole still puts them well above the threshold, but at that point, it’s more than worth it. For New York, the key isn’t as much getting below the tax as it is getting below $248 million. For every dollar spent up to $248 million, the tax is solely monetary. Beyond that point, however, a team’s highest draft selection is moved down 10 slots. That’s why the Yankees (or any team) can blow pretty far past the tax without having to worry about impacting anything other than their owner’s checkbook. Finances aside, Happ is a compelling trade target for teams interested in rotation depth, and as Andy Martino reported on Tuesday, “plenty” of National League teams have demonstrated interest, including the Brewers. The Blue Jays, who have been in the running for rotation help all offseason, have also considered a reunion with the left-hander. The Yankees would be selling low on Happ, who is coming off his worst season in five years. In 161.1 frames last season, he pitched to a 4.91 ERA and a 5.22 FIP, only striking out 21% of opponents while walking 7%. He was also bitten by the home run ball, allowing a career-high 34 homers and posting the seventh-highest HR/9 among starters with at least 100 innings. As a result, Happ’s xFIP looks more favorably upon his 2019 season, pegging him at a 4.78 mark, though it was still worse than the league average. Perhaps the most concerning of Happ’s 2019 numbers is the aforementioned low strikeout rate, which dropped nearly six full points from 2018. By pitch values, the majority of Happ’s offerings were less effective in 2019 than in ’18, but on a rate basis, no pitch saw a more significant drop in results than his slider, which was worth 1.45 fewer runs per 100 pitches. J.A. Happ’s Slider Season AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ SwStr% Whiff/Swing% 2018 .160 .177 .330 .215 44 11.9% 27.4% 2019 .255 .277 .449 .302 99 7.7% 21.4% Hitters swung at Happ’s slider less often, but when they did, they made contact at higher rates. For a pitcher who relies heavily on the slider to induce whiffs, that’s not what you want. To right-handed hitters in particular, Happ let the slider bleed into the middle of the zone more often, which allowed hitters to sit and wait for a hanger. Still, the slider wasn’t crushed. Yes, it trended downward in 2019, but of the 34 home runs Happ allowed, only four came off of the pitch. What really hurt him was the decrease in his fastball effectiveness. Though the pitch did not experience the worst year-over-year loss in run value on a rate basis, it did decrease from +19.3 in 2018 to -1.2 in ’19. As we’d expect, the splits against the pitch aren’t great: J.A. Happ’s Fastball Season AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ SwStr% Whiff/Swing% 2018 .203 .285 .411 .302 100 10.5% 24.4% 2019 .244 .333 .561 .368 143 11.0% 25.2% Batters were effectively Pete Alonso against Happ’s fastball. He still posted solid strikeout and walk numbers on at-bats ending with the pitch, so his wOBA allowed doesn’t look as bad in comparison to the rest of the league. But if we remove those events and focus solely on the batted ball results, Happ’s .436 wOBA allowed on contact puts him in the bottom 23% of all pitchers. Though his results were not phenomenal, it is not surprising that Happ has already generated considerable interest from around the league. Despite the down year, his velocity and movement remained stable, so it shouldn’t be a stretch to expect better results in 2020. Steamer projects Happ to post a 4.77 ERA and 4.89 FIP over roughly 150 innings next year, good for 1.7 WAR. Toronto makes a lot of sense here considering the organizational familiarity and the need for starting pitching. Over 40% of Happ’s career innings have come with the Blue Jays, including two separate stints from 2012-14 and 2016-18. Their rotation could certainly use an upgrade considering it is currently projected to be the second-worst in the game by total WAR: Blue Jays’ Starting Pitching Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR Chase Anderson 173.0 7.7 3.1 1.9 .302 69.2% 5.49 5.49 0.8 Trent Thornton 162.0 7.9 3.1 1.7 .306 70.0% 5.11 5.07 1.4 Matt Shoemaker 149.0 8.0 2.7 1.7 .308 70.2% 5.04 5.00 1.4 Ryan Borucki 136.0 7.1 3.4 1.5 .309 69.6% 5.08 5.06 0.9 Jacob Waguespack 122.0 7.1 3.8 1.6 .307 69.1% 5.35 5.33 0.7 Anthony Kay 110.0 7.8 4.2 1.8 .300 70.1% 5.44 5.58 0.2 T.J. Zeuch 27.0 5.6 3.4 1.5 .313 68.0% 5.42 5.36 0.1 Sean Reid-Foley 19.0 9.3 4.6 1.5 .304 71.3% 4.89 4.95 0.1 Julian Merryweather 19.0 8.6 2.9 1.5 .309 71.2% 4.55 4.52 0.3 Total 918.0 7.6 3.3 1.7 .306 69.7% 5.23 5.23 5.9 SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts The Blue Jays have reportedly expressed interest in Hyun-Jin Ryu and were in on Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles before they both agreed to sign with the Rangers. But according to Shi Davidi of Sportsnet, one agent views talks with the Blue Jays as “90% due diligence that doesn’t go anywhere.” If the Blue Jays aren’t among the most aggressive teams on the free agent pitching market, they may have to explore trade options like Happ to land the rotation upgrades they so desire. Meanwhile, Milwaukee finds itself in a different position than Toronto. The Brewers are coming off of a second consecutive playoff berth and would need Happ to contribute at a high level in order to make it three straight. As we’ve seen in the past, they do have a knack for pitcher tinkering. Drew Pomeranz pitched only 26.1 innings with the Brewers, but his dominance earned him $34 million from the Padres. The Brewers need rotation help, and while their current group is projected to be considerably better than the Blue Jays’ arsenal, they currently rank 19th in the game in projected WAR: Brewers’ Starting Pitching Name IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 BABIP LOB% ERA FIP WAR Brandon Woodruff 183.0 9.9 3.1 1.2 .313 72.9% 4.04 3.99 3.3 Eric Lauer 162.0 8.2 3.4 1.6 .304 72.0% 4.78 4.93 1.5 Freddy Peralta 169.0 10.7 4.5 1.5 .300 73.3% 4.51 4.60 2.4 Adrian Houser 160.0 8.4 3.3 1.2 .315 71.2% 4.40 4.35 2.2 Corbin Burnes 132.0 9.0 3.6 1.4 .306 72.0% 4.48 4.55 1.9 Trey Supak 74.0 6.8 3.2 1.9 .302 69.1% 5.50 5.59 0.2 Brent Suter 38.0 8.3 2.3 1.5 .306 73.0% 4.32 4.46 0.5 Bubba Derby 18.0 7.1 4.1 1.9 .301 68.9% 5.84 5.93 0.0 Total 936.0 9.0 3.5 1.4 .307 72.0% 4.54 4.59 11.9 SOURCE: FanGraphs Depth Charts While the results were not outstanding in 2019, Happ remains a useful arm with the potential to rebound. The Blue Jays and Brewers recognize this, and though the two teams have different needs, they could both benefit from having him on their staff. As the Yankees explore moving him to clear some salary, Happ could be coveted by more than just Toronto and Milwaukee. One thing remains certain: every move is interconnected, and there is never a break in the action. Before Gerrit Cole had even signed, New York was already moving on to its next order of business.