Twins Ink J.A. Happ to One-Year Deal

Between Jose Quintana, J.A. Happ, and Joe Biden, quite a few old lefties have found new homes lately. The news on Happ came relatively late yesterday, so if you missed the details, he’s now a Twin after agreeing to a one-year deal worth $8 million, per ESPN’s Jeff Passan and MLB Network’s Jon Heyman.

The departures of Rich Hill and Jake Odorizzi left a hole in the back of Minnesota’s rotation. Happ’s a perfectly capable fill-in, though the move does raise questions about whether the Twins are done enhancing their rotation, and whether the team is good enough to retain the AL Central crown as currently constructed.

In nine starts for the Yankees last season, Happ notched a 3.47 ERA and a 4.57 FIP. That second figure was a significant improvement over his 2019 production, as home runs were a major bugaboo for him back when we last had fans: Yankee Stadium’s cozy confines and a drag-free baseball led to a 1.90 HR/9 ratio and a FIP well over five. While his homer rate dropped a tad below 1.50 per nine in 2020, it was the .220 average batters hit on balls in play that buffed up his ERA.

In a way this marks a return to form. More than a decade ago, Happ first made his name in Philadelphia as a starter who significantly outpitched his peripherals; the gap between his ERA and FIP in Philly was so wide that when the Astros acquired him in a trade for Roy Oswalt, all we had to say about him was “while he has some value as a league minimum guy for the next couple of years, he can be replaced.”

It wasn’t exactly a straight line between then and now, but Happ again looks like a durable innings eater who can provide something approximating league average production out of the rotation. He’s 38 now, but hasn’t shown too many signs of aging. His velocity has dipped a tick over the last two years, though he’s within half a mile per hour of the gas he had in his Blue Jays days. He’s barely missed a start over the last three years and just posted the highest swing-and-miss rate of his career. Steamer, ZiPS, and intuition all have him pegged as the fourthiest No. 4 starter who ever slotted into the fourth spot of a rotation.

2020 Stats 7.66 2.74 1.46 3.47 4.57 4.34 0.6
Steamer 7.88 3.07 1.58 4.85 4.89 4.9 1.3
ZiPS 8.27 2.98 1.52 4.57 4.67 x 1.6

It’s a decent match between player and club as well. Happ is one of the league’s oldest pitchers, and after earning more than $90 million in his career, it makes sense that he’d want to play for a contender. For the Twins, it’s a savvy move financially, if a bit underwhelming in the context of their divisional situation.

Even after Cleveland’s sell-off, Minnesota’s grip on the AL Central isn’t nearly as tight as fans would like. A year after signing Yasmani Grandal and Dallas Keuchel, and successfully graduating Nick Madrigal and Luis Robert onto the big league team, the White Sox won nearly 60% of their games last season. They’ve followed that promising campaign with another big offseason, adding Lance Lynn, Liam Hendriks, and Adam Eaton. Whether they are now the divisional favorites or not, it should be a very close race at the top of the AL Central.

In that competitive landscape, the Twins now project to start the season with a rotation of José Berríos, Kenta Maeda, Michael Pineda, Happ, and Randy Dobnak. That’s not a bad group, and there’s no reason that that rotation can’t lead Minnesota into October, particularly if 16 teams get to dance again this season (at this point let’s pause for a quick digression on how MLB is so chaotic and badly administered that we’re now less than two and a half months from Opening Day and we still don’t know the size of the playoff field).

Assuming, for now, that only five AL teams will qualify for the postseason, the Happ signing seems like a decent, if insufficient addition. Minnesota has committed $100 million to their 2021 payroll, down about $20 million from last season. They also have less than $50 million on the books for 2022 at this point, and amidst the pandemic and an uncertain revenue situation, the big question here is whether the Twins can continue spending.

The rotation was the obvious spot to upgrade, and may remain so even with Happ in the fold: Dobnak has never carried a full-season workload at this level, and there isn’t any proven depth behind him. Perhaps the Twins are confident that Jordan Balazovic and Jhoan Duran are ready to step in; maybe ownership wants to keep payroll right around $100 million. Regardless, Chicago’s talent level is uncomfortably close to Minnesota’s. If the Twins are done upgrading their rotation, and the division race remains close throughout the summer, we may look back on this winter as a missed opportunity.

It’s also worth reflecting on the financial details here as they pertain to Happ himself. The lefty’s contract is worth less than half of what he stood to make in New York this year, had he made 10 starts instead of nine last season. The Yankees toyed with his workload throughout 2020, a decision that Brian Cashman attributed to baseball reasons.

Happ, not surprisingly, wasn’t buying it.

In August, he commented that it was “pretty clear” what was happening with regard to his contract situation, following that up with “It doesn’t take too much to figure out what could be going on.”

In that context, one year and $8 million seem a little light for a 1.5-ish win pitcher, even if COVID-related uncertainties can be partially blamed for dampening salaries league-wide. For what it’s worth, Craig Edwards pegged the terms on the dot in our free agent roundup last November, and the crowdsource estimate was less than a $1 million off the mark as well. On top of that, Quintana and Robbie Ray both signed one-year $8 million deals earlier this winter as well. If nothing else, it appears that there’s a going rate for proven starters you wouldn’t necessarily want to start twice in a playoff series.

Still, Happ’s signing is the latest sign that we’re in a tight yet eclectic market this winter. It’s a world where Kevin Gausman can get a qualifying offer on the back of 10 good starts, and Drew Smyly $11 million on an even thinner body of work. It’s also a market where top end starters mostly remain unsigned and innings-eaters with a track record of consistent production can’t get a 10-figure deal. It’s a venture capitalist’s league right now, and upside relative to cost is the order of the day.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
3 years ago

So this is the most boring transaction of the year?