Disclaimer: Obviously the Pirates are not done playing baseball yet in 2015, and their focus should be on winning the World Series. But it doesn’t hurt for us to take a peek at what may happen with Happ once the season is over while we wait for the Wild Card game.
J.A. Happ discovered in early August skipping a start can be a good thing.
After getting roughed up by the Chicago Cubs in his first Pirates start on August 4 to the tune of nine hits and four runs given up over 4.1 innings, Happ was given 10 days off to work with Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Searage.
The Pirates needed Happ. With AJ Burnett having been placed on the disabled list right before Happ was acquired, a rotation spot was left open. Searage tinkered with Happ’s delivery with the hope he could fill that void.
The time with Searage appears to have made all the difference.
How good as Happ been since?
In 10 starts – 59 innings – after his time off he gave up 9 runs. Six of his starts were scoreless, including his most recent two against the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds.
Happ finished a 7-2 record with the Pirates, and a 1.85 ERA. He paired his 9.8 K/9 ratio with a 1.8 BB/9 rate; take away that start against the Cubs, and his ERA drops to 1.37. His FIP of 2.19 also doesn’t suggest those numbers were due to luck, either.
Statistically, no other Pirates pitcher has been better than Happ since late July when he was acquired from the Seattle Mariners.
The trade for Happ was not a popular one in Pittsburgh. He struggled mightily with the Mariners, and many thought the club should have given up the assets to get David Price or Johnny Cueto. But it did not take long for Happ to turn doubters into believers the way Edinson Volquez, Francisco Liriano and Burnett did before him.
But the downside to Happ’s newly-found success is there will be a higher demand for his service when he becomes a free agent at season’s end. Of course their season is not over yet either, and the legend of Happ could grow even more in the playoffs. Happ has put up ace-like numbers in his time with the Pirates, and they surely would love to have him back.
And it makes sense for the Pirates to try to bring him back.
Burnett has said he is retiring at the end of the season. Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton struggled mightily in their last few starts. That leaves one open rotation spot, and two others that could possibly be upgraded.
Right now the Pirates have no one to fill those spots. Prized top prospect Tyler Glasnow will eventually join the rotation in 2016 barring injury, but he likely will not reach Pittsburgh until June based on their precedent on handling top prospects. Fellow top prospects Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham missed most of 2015 with injuries, and pushed their likely major league arrival time to mid- or late-2016. Depth options Brandon Cumpton and Casey Sadler also suffered season-ending injuries, and may not be ready to pitch in the Majors by Spring Training.
A contract similar to the two-year, $10 million deal that Volquez got from the Kansas City Royals last off-season would make sense for the Pirates. They would keep a quality left-handed pitcher around for a couple more years until their top prospects are ready, and when they are they let him walk.
But there are still a few caveats to consider before signing Happ.
First is small sample size. Happ, after all, has only pitched 11 games for the Pirates, and teams may not yet have had time to adjust to his new mechanics and emphasis on pitching inside. That’s not to say once team’s become more familiar with Happ that he will revert back to the pitcher he was in Seattle, but he also may not put up ace-like numbers.
Happ will also be 33 on October 19, and a multi-year deal that would run through a pitcher’s mid-30s may not be the most efficient choice if his skills start deteriorating. Pitchers in their mid-30s can still draw decent contracts, such as 33-year-old Jason Hammel’s two-year, $20 million deal he signed last winter.
Plus, there is the Ray Searage-factor. Searage by now has established himself as a miracle worker of a pitching coach, and the club may opt to go for his next reclamation project instead of re-signing Happ. If they do go this route, the top choice would likely be Jeff Samardzija, whom the Pirates have shown interest in for years and could be had on the cheap after struggling last season with the Chicago White Sox.
However, considering their lack of pitching depth next season, the best move for the Pirates would likely be bringing back Happ and signing a reclamation project. Locke cannot be counted on over a 162-game season, and Morton is frustratingly-inconsistent. Even if Happ regresses he would still likely be an improvement over Locke, and someone like Samardzija would push Morton to the fifth spot until Glasnow is ready.
It also makes sense from Happ’s standpoint to remain with the Pirates. He revived his career in Pittsburgh, and without Searage he may revert back to the pitcher he was without him.
Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette