J.A. Happ’s first two tours in Toronto began and ended in similar fashion. He arrived rather unexpectedly and unceremoniously, yet exited as a heralded member of the Blue Jays pitching staff. Might he return for a third act with the Blue Jays?
It’s easy to forget how good Happ was in a Blue Jays uniform. Among all Blue Jays pitchers lifetime, he ranks 9th in strikeouts, 12th in games started and 16th in innings pitched. Along with Jimmy Key and David Wells, Happ will go down as one of the best left-handed in franchise history.
There’s no question that Happ is a fit for the Blue Jays. He’s everything they could want in a starting pitcher; a reliable lefty who throws a decent amount of innings and racks up strikeouts. Even at 36 years old, Happ hardly shows his age on the mound.
The Blue Jays graciously and wisely chose to trade Happ at the trade deadline. He went out to greener pastures in the Bronx, but a little piece of Toronto whispered: “you’re always welcome back, James Anthony”.
As it sits now, the Blue Jays 2019 rotation forecasts to be something along the lines of Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, Ryan Borucki, Sean Reid-Foley and Sam Gaviglio. This coming season won’t be contending year by any means, but that starting rotation depth chart is littered with question marks.
Surely, the Blue Jays will make at least one move to sign or trade for an established starting pitcher. Happ fits the bill perfectly; a durable, battle-tested arm who can survive the rigours of the American League East. He’s also someone who willingly re-signed with the Blue Jays once before.
However, the dynamic in Toronto is much different this offseason than it was three winters ago when Happ signed his three-year/$36 million contract. The Jays were coming off a thrilling 93-win regular season, their first postseason berth in 22 years and a trip to the ALCS.
Toronto wasn’t a tough sell back then. This offseason, it’s a much different story. The Blue Jays would welcome Happ back in a heartbeat, but more importantly, are they a good fit for him?
There’s already a long list of suitors for Happ, including the Mets, Twins, White, Sox and the Reds. Then there’s the team he just finished playing for: the New York Yankees. From Happ’s perspective, the Yankees are a much more attractive free agent destination than the Blue Jays. Toronto may not be ready to contend until 2020 at the earliest. Much like the late 90’s and early 2000’s, the Yankees are perennial contenders again.
Happ reportedly very much enjoyed his time in Toronto and was fond of Blue Jays pitching coach, Pete Walker. In fact, Happ listed Walker as one of the reasons why he re-signed with the Jays in 2015. The two ran the gamut since Happ first landed in Toronto in July of 2012.
To me, the stumbling block for Happ coming back to the Blue Jays is the same issue players face who don’t have a no-trade clause built into their contract; it’s the possibility of being dealt again. If the Jays were to sign Happ this winter, who’s to say they don’t turn around and trade him again at the 2019 trade deadline?
Not that the Blue Jays would pull a Miami Marlins on Happ like the Marlins did with Giancarlo Stanton, but if Happ were to re-sign in Toronto, he’s liable to become trade fodder every trade deadline and offseason until his contract expires.
It’s nice to be wanted by other organizations, but it can’t be fun to have your family uprooted more than once a season. Players don’t sign multi-year free agent contracts with the anticipation of being traded. They understand it’s a possibility down the line, but if Happ’s signing anywhere, it’s with a team where he has some stability.
If the Jays are looking for a pitcher of Happ’s skill set, why not go with Happ-lite and sign Gio Gonzalez instead? In all likelihood, Happ signs a two or three-year free agent deal, but it might only take a one or two-year deal for the Blue Jays to land Gonzalez.
As a pitcher who’s already on the other side of thirty, this will probably be the last multi-year contract of Happ’s career. Considering how poorly the Blue Jays fared this past season, Toronto may not be a viable destination for a guy chasing a World Series ring in the twilight of his career.