Have the Pittsburgh Pirates seen enough to re-sign JA Happ?


The Pittsburgh Pirates were forced into a last-minute deal at the trade deadline. With A.J. Burnett‘s injury becoming worse than originally feared, Neal Huntington’s back was against a wall. In light of these factors, surely the Pirates fanbase would be forgiving with the well-regarded general manager should any potential trade backfire.

Instead, the arrival of J.A. Happ – or rather, his transformation into an absolute weapon of a pitcher – has fans singing Huntington’s praises again.

If the Pittsburgh Pirates re-sign Happ for 2016 and potentially beyond, will that song turn into a symphony?

Hard to say. But before we get into if re-signing Happ makes sense, let’s backtrack somewhat. With the trio of Burnett, Gerrit Cole, and Francisco Liriano humming along, Burnett’s injury was a huge blow. With an already shaky Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke behind Batman, Huntington was left in a very unfamiliar position at the deadline – conducting business in a reactive manner rather than a proactive one. In 2013, Huntington made moves that strengthened an already-strong club. In 2014, Huntington realized there was not a strong enough market to address his team’s true needs and acted accordingly. This year Huntington was in the unenviable and unfamiliar position of having to plug a sudden gaping hole in what had been the team’s biggest strength in the season to that point: the starting rotation.

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Huntington did what Huntington has done time and again during his tenure in Pittsburgh: he made a sound and decidedly unsexy acquisition in Happ. Perhaps those words are incapable of doing justice to the feeling on the move at the time. Coming off of a dismal start for the Mariners – his last – in which he was shelled for three home runs en route to an ugly six earned runs in 3.1 innings, Happ did little to inspire Pittsburgh Pirates fans. Since then, he has changed fans’ tunes on the back of a 2.04 ERA as a Pirate coupled with incredible control by way of a 6.2 K:BB ratio. The Pirates have won seven of his 10 starts, proving that Happ is more than just a stopgap replacement.

But have the Pirates seen enough to attempt to re-sign Happ? I believe so. Happ will be a relatively-young (by starting pitcher standards) 33 years old by next season. While many of his peripherals leave a lot to be desired – a career K:BB of 2.15, a career 1.1 HR/9 – the improvement since he has become a Pirate is drastic and considerable.

Getting away from the stats for a moment, it’s hard to fathom Happ approaching anything close to un-signable, even with with turning his career around since hooking up with Ray Searage. Happ’s last contract was for 3 years/15.6 million, and that was off of the back of four straight years with an ERA over four. The first two years of the current contract also saw bloated ERAs. Even with the amazing stretch he is currently enjoying, Happ shouldn’t command too high of a price tag. 

The arrival of Happ – or rather, his transformation into an absolute weapon of a pitcher – has fans singing Huntington’s praises again. If the Pittsburgh Pirates re-sign Happ for 2016 and potentially beyond, will that song turn into a symphony?

We have a couple of built-in comparables we can use to draw conclusions on Happ’s sign-ability. We can point to Francisco Liriano’s initial Pirates contract – 2 years/$12.75 million – as a starting point. Liriano had struggled like Happ in years previous, which kept his price tag down. We can also point to Edinson Volquez. Volquez signed a one-year contract for $5 million prior to the 2014 season, and he earned that contract with 13 wins and an ERA of 3.05. Based on his work with Searage, Volquez parlayed a bounce-back 2014 into a 2-year/$20 million contract from the Kansas City Royals.

How can we use these two contracts to determine Happ’s next contract? In my view, Happ is a hybrid of these two case studies. Coming off of a few disappointing years yet not having anything more than roughly half a season under Searage’s tutelage, teams might be unwilling to give Happ the commitment he would  like. The Pirates could come right in with a one, or two-year deal framed similar to the Liriano or Russell Martin contracts – ones that are aimed at re-establishing the player as much as getting the best value for the team.

For Happ, this would make perfect sense.  A full offseason, spring training, and season with Searage could fully resurrect his once-promising career and give him a chance at one last lucrative contract.

For the Pittsburgh Pirates, this too can make good sense. With Burnett’s contract coming off the books, the team would be in the market for a starting pitcher, especially if they would like Tyler Glasnow to get more seasoning.

The fact that this conversation exists is incredible in its own right.

Sometimes we do our best work under intense pressure. Right, Neal?

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