When the Pittsburgh Pirates acquired J.A. Happ in a reactionary trade deadline deal, it would have been ludicrous to suggest that Happ would have the success he would go on to have as a Pirate.
Now, as the Pirates begin to draw up plans for their 2016 starting rotation, Happ’s name carries considerable more weight. Happ is a free agent of course, and a very signable one at that. What will it take for the Pirates to acquire his services?
First, let’s remind ourselves of the Pirates current need. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole are in place at the top of the rotation. Firmly planted at the bottom are Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton. Locke is up for arbitration and may ver well be shown the door with a non-tender. If the teams go to the arbitration table and Locke comes away with a slight raise, he can still be considered a bargain compared to the free agent pitching market. As much as many fans would like to see him go also, Morton is not going anywhere with an $8 million price tag. Morton did nothing to increase his trade value in 2015, meaning any possible trade would require the Pirates to absorb some of the money owed to Chuck. That is just something the Pirates do not do.
Throw in the retirement of A.J. Burnett, and the door is wide-open for Happ to slide in as an attractive third option behind the horses up front.
The question now becomes: did the Pirates price themselves out of contention for Happ’s services by “fixing” him?
I don’t believe that to be the case. In trying to determine what it might take to bring Happ back, most would immediately think of Edinson Volquez. Volquez parlayed a great year under Ray Searage into a 2-year/$20 million contract with the Royals. I would caution those not to draw such a direct comparison. In posting a 3.04 ERA in his year as a Pirate, Volquez masked a 4.15 FIP (Fielding independent pitching), suggesting that he greatly benefitted from the Pirates’ defensive systems. Happ’s ERA as a Pirate was 1.85, and his FIP was 2.19, suggesting real and lasting improvement.
Until someone sets the market, it will be hard to give a raw figure that will bring Happ back, and I won’t do so today. What I will do is point out just how flooded with viable options the starting pitching market is. These options range from the high end – Zack Greinke – to established starters with big question marks – Doug Fister, Dillon Gee, Bud Norris to name but a few – and Happ finds himself somewhere in the middle.
The sheer glut of available pitchers will work in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ favor. Happ’s last contract (3 yr/$15.6 million) was seen as a peculiar move for a pitcher that was coming off of three straight seasons with an ERA of 4.5 or higher.
11 starts with the Pirates will not change that reputation.
The volume of starters available and Happ’s own history will combine to lower his price tag, making him very likely to re-sign. The question now becomes – Will the Pirates feel comfortable making any commitment beyond a one year deal?