Who would have guessed that J.A. Happ would have ended up the best starter for the Pittsburgh Pirates after the trade deadline? After another good outing tonight, the left-hander has posted a 1.79 ERA and a 2.86 xFIP in 40.1 innings with the Pirates, along with a 42:7 K/BB ratio. Those are top of the rotation numbers, and this all includes his first start, which was horrible and took place before the mechanical changes really kicked in.

We’ve written a lot about how Happ got to this point. While no one expected him to be this good, the idea that he could turn things around with the Pirates wasn’t far-fetched, as he looked like a lot of Pirates’ reclamation projects in the past.

Now there’s going to be an interesting question raised over the off-season: What kind of contract will Happ receive?

I asked this a few starts ago, giving the comparison to Edinson Volquez. The Pirates turned Volquez around last year, watching him post a 3.04 ERA and a 4.20 xFIP in 192.2 innings. He parlayed that into a two-year, $20 M deal, with a $10 M mutual option in 2017 that came with a $3 M buyout.

By comparison, Happ is about a year older than Volquez, although his status as a left-hander might give him some value. He doesn’t have the low ERA on the season, with a 3.87 mark after tonight, but his 3.83 xFIP is better than what Volquez had. He’s pitched 149 innings so far, which is in part due to his struggles earlier in the year with Seattle. And then there’s the stretch with the Pirates, which could give him a boost in value.

Could Happ receive the same amount as Volquez? It’s not out of the question. Jason Hammel got 2/$18 M heading into his age 33 season, and that was after putting up a 3.47 ERA and a 3.57 xFIP in 176.1 innings. Jake Peavy didn’t have the same results, posting a 3.73 ERA and a 4.18 xFIP, but still pulled in a 2/$24 M deal going into his age 34 season.

For another perspective, there’s Dan Haren, who received one year and $10 M at the end of the 2013 season, after putting up a 4.67 ERA and a 3.67 xFIP overΒ 169.2 innings. The average annual cost was about the same, but Haren got less guaranteed, with just one year covered (although he did get a team option).

I think that Happ could get that $10 M per year range, although I’m not sure how many years he’d get. If he continues pitching the way he’s been pitching lately, then I wouldn’t be surprised to see him getting a Volquez deal.

As for the Pirates, they’ll start the year with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Locke as rotation options. So there would be at least one spot open for a starter until the top prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon arrive. Whether it would make sense to bring Happ back remains to be seen. He wouldn’t be a bad option on a one-year deal. However, if the cost is multiple years, the Pirates might be better off going with a one-year bounce back option for their rotation, especially with all of the prospects they’ll have in the upper levels, ready to make the jump to the majors in the second half of 2016.

**Prospect Watch: Clutch Home Run From Meadows Highlights Winning Night. Live reports from Indianapolis and Altoona, with a lot of late action from the latter.

**Five Pirates Taken in Dominican Winter League Draft. A breakdown of the next guys who will be representing the Pirates in the DWL.

**Josh Bell is the Pirates Prospects Player of the Month for August

**Steven Brault is the Pirates Prospects Pitcher of the Month for August

**Minor Moves: Dodson Added to Indianapolis Roster, Gonzalez Added to Altoona

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104 COMMENTS

  1. Any chance the Pirates make a qualifying offer to Happ. If the Pirates want to bring him back next season, why not? That is if they are willing to allocate money towards Happ. If he declines the qualifying offer and signs elsewhere, we pick up a compensatory pick in the 2016 MLB draft next June.

  2. In calculating the comparison to Volquez, I think you also have to look at what he has done for the Royals (to date: 3.49 ERA, 3.76 FIP, 4.26 xFIP). Since Volquez is one of only two Post-Searage Pitchers (PSPs) that went to other teams (Burnett), does his subsequent performance make FA buyers MORE or LESS interested in PSPs?

    In this case, I’d argue that Volquez was slightly discounted because many didn’t believe his improvements would hold. The stats say he’s done pretty much the same thing for the Royals as he did for the Pirates. That might mean teams will spend more on other PSPs.

  3. Happ will get more than Volquez unless he wants to give the Pirates a discount. As Tim notes, being a lefty is an advantage. More importantly, Happ has been a lot more consistent than Volquez which I think will translate to a team being willing to go three years. That would have been too risky for Volquez (though now I’m sure he could get three years after a second good year in a row).

    I’ll guess Happ gets $27M/3 years but perhaps he’d be willing to stay with the Pirates for $20M/2. That’s a deal I’d do.

    • Consistency doesnt really sell well when you are selling being consistently above 4 FIP and xFIP. Teams are beyond the point where pure ERA is gonna be all they want to look at, and even his ERA hasnt been useful since 2010.

      I think the Volquez’s of the world benefit from the early good results and plus stuff. Teams knew he had good stuff, and an entire year in PGH convinced some that he had matched better control with his stuff.

      I dont think its clear yet that Happ will make teams think he’s beyond his 4-ish ways. Not enough to throw a ton at him.

  4. I understand Jeff Locke is under team control for a few more years but I would rather pay a guy like Haap to fill that spot in the rotation next year and the year beyond. Locke is what he is and is not going to get alot better. Plus we need depth in the rotation. Glasnow will be up at some point but Tallion is not a sure thing coming off Tommy John.

    • I can’t see Taillon not coming up, but there likely would be an innings cap. Will be interesting to see how that cap gets divvied up between AAA and MLB. Regardless, I wouldn’t expect a top of rotation performance from him in 2016.

    • I wanted Fister last year because he seemed relatively stable as he was – not as a reclamation project. I fear he’s just getting bad. Unlike the Liriano/Volquez/Burnett/Happ examples, Fister has pretty much always outperformed his FIP/xFIP, so he’s been more lucky than unlucky.

      I wouldn’t rule him out altogether, but he’s never been much of a K guy and while his GB% is down this year, it doesn’t really seem there’s much more there than appears.

      • IDK, Happ, Liriano,Volquez all looked like they were just kinda awful before coming here so I wouldn’t question any reclaimation projects they bring in at this point. That said I haven’t seen them sniffing at Fister like they did Happ last year.

    • When brought up a week or so ago, i mentioned his velo is down on all pitches from last year, and last year it was down from the previous years. Its a bit daunting that he has lost 2-3 mph on all pitches, not a typical PGH type for resurrecting a career.

  5. IMO, the key salient point is that the Bucs will have pretty much zero SP depth until June. So they have to sign somebody. And if they sign Happ, then they still likely have to sign someone else.

    As I see it (and I could be wrong here), the only SP with remaining options is Cole. So if Happ or another guy replaces Locke in the rotation, the result is Locke being waived (and likely claimed) and there’s still no depth. It’s possible Locke goes to the pen… but he’d likely be a worse alternative than whatever the Bucs would already have there.

    The other option is another fix-it project is signed to a minor league deal and held at AAA until needed. If Worley gets offered and decides to stay, he could be that guy.

    • Agree with the premise, but I think they’re better off tendering Locke and using him as starter depth out of the bullpen over the first two months before transitioning him to a more permanent role of second bullpen lefty. He’ll be cheaper than Worley, arguably a better overall pitcher, and almost certainly a better fit in the pen.

      They’ll have the money to bring in an “established” guy like Happ as well as more of a project. The latter guy should be one who could transition to the pen (possibly even Radhames Liz like Arthur mentioned) saving a deadline trade once Glasnow/Taillon are called up.

      • I don’t have a ton of faith with Locke in a bullpen role, but it would be interesting to see if there’s another gear he might click into if he only had to go 1-3 innings… perhaps more velocity, less nibbling? Who knows. Maybe he’s a LH Blanton in waiting.

        • In NMR’s above situation, it would be interesting to see Locke’s velo as a 2nd lefty only 1-2 innings guy. Adding 1-2 mph on his FB could elevate his stuff enough. Assuming he attacks a bit more due to better velo.

          • I’ve seen that too. Think he’s hit 94-95 at times. Not sure about his ability to induce a groundball, though. At least compared with relievers who’ve done it awhile.

        • I also don’t think he necessarily profiles as a Zack Duke/Andrew Miller conversion some dream of, but I absolutely think he’s good enough to be a serviceable middle reliever who can have the platoon advantage more often than not.

          As a utility type of pitcher who’ll still be relatively cheap his first time through arb, I don’t think he’s any worse than what the club got from Justin Wilson or what they’re getting this year from Antonio Bastardo. Low praise, but still a useful pitcher.

    • I think its likely the Pirates try to “flip” another veteran arm or two than pay Happ.

      There’s probably several guys on underachieving teams right now, getting pitched by their agent ” We should consider a one year with Pittsburgh. Work with their people, have a good year, then cash in 2017.”

      I mean, how many examples could they sight? Maybe a dozen, small sample.

  6. I assume the Pirates will offer arb to Worley as well. Last year he was almost as much of a blessing as Happ is in 2015. The question NH will be axing his pitching coaches is: Happ, Locke, Worley… can any/some/all of these guys be maintained/fixed for spring training next year? I don’t see Happ as a Liriano. He will be treated like Burnett..we have a number, it’s lower than you will get elsewhere, keep us in your thoughts amigo.

    • Id be shocked if Worley comes back unless he is content in a long relief role. He’ll make 3 million and the team almost certainly isnt looking to rely on him for more than spot starts at best.

      I really dont think the team is high on him at this point.

  7. If Happ has half a brain he’ll realize that this team is the right place for him to enjoy baseball for the next 3-5 yearIs. A lefty who has some control and some deception and a fastball that hits 95 on occassion (read Liriano / Happ) is a guy you want on your staff. I’d love to see Happ signed for a similar contract that Liriano signed.

  8. Happ’s upcoming free agency will be the ultimate test of the league’s belief in the Ray Searage Effect.

    Ask yourself, what kind of contract Happ would’ve been in line to receive just one month ago? Is he a $10m pitcher? Most certainly not. Is he even a multi-year guy?

    All the comps Tim listed had far, far better track records than Happ. Eddie Volquez had the low ERA, 95mph fastball, and huge-breakout>shitty-years>fixed-by-Searage narrative.

    I don’t know. If Happ gets Hamels’ money it’ll be a huge win for him and an even bigger steal for the Cubs.

  9. they’ll start the year with Gerrit Cole, Francisco Liriano, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Locke as rotation options

    By my count that leaves two starting slots open. πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

  10. I could go either way. This version of Happ, is not sustainable. While I give all those credit for getting Happ and identifying his issues, some of this is just NL teams not seeing him after being in the AL. As the tape grows longer, I’m sure some of these numbers will regress to the norm.

    However, there is a saying “better the devil you know”. No telling what they could get on the market, however robust it is. Considering what guys like McCarthy and Santana got, and then the aftermath, maybe you’re better of going with what you know, even when he comes back to Earth.

    • There’s a lot to be said for throwing strikes and getting ahead in counts. And Happ is doing that better than any other Bucs starter.

      Certainly he’s not going to continue to be the 6th best starting pitcher in baseball. But if he’s only even top 50 or 60 by end of year, that’s pretty damned good for the investment. Going by last calendar year, he’s currently #43 in value. Which is several spots ahead of James Shields.

      • But sooo many of those numbers are way off his career norms. Look at his WHIP and FIP compared to the rest of his career.

        To steal a line from Josh Miller this morning its “Jhay-esque” of 2014.

        Makes me real cautious bro.

        • More than just off career norms, off career peaks. The Burnett, Liriano, Volquez turnarounds were just that; poor recent performance turning back to precious good performance. Happ’s blowing past anything he’s ever come close to doing, majors or minors.

          • And all from relatively minor tweaks as emphasizing where he lands his foot, repeatability of his delivery and throwing Strike 1 on the first pitch. Makes one wonder about the quality of pitching coaches around the league, or should we enshrine St. Searage?

            • Orrrr maybe pump the breaks on just how good those few tweaks will end up making him after he gets around the league a few times.

              I don’t know, honestly.

  11. I don’t know if the Pirates are that smart or have just been lucky, but the transformation of Happ has been amazing. Even in his best years, he was NEVER this good – not even close. Can he sustain this or is this just a short-term “catching lightning in a bottle” type of thing? Not only has he been the team’s best starter, it hasn’t even been close.

    • I think it’s both. Happ was hand picked like all the other reclamation projects for a specific reason. That being said I can’t imagine they thought they’d get this type of production. Liriano and Burnett probably out performed their expectations when they were first signed but they did have a track record.

  12. With Locke being arbitration eligible and Morton in the last year of his contract, could you see one of them dealt in the off season, the team signing someone like Happ and giving Liz a shot at the 5 spot? The Pirates will need a better start next year if they want to over take the Cards. Also there are no guarantees with rookie starters.

    • If the front office made the decision to do so, could the Pirates sign Happ right now to a contract for one or more seasons?

      • There wouldnt be, as far as i can see, anything to prevent that from a rules standpoint. But i dont know of many players that negotiate their contract during the season.

        • Thanks. I was wondering if there was anything in the CBA or calendar issues barring a contract offer from his current club at this time. I agree you don’t hear about it much in season.

  13. They cannot open the season with Locke and Morton in the rotation. Neither is consistent enough. Time to move on from at least one of them. Sign Happ and sign another reclamation project. The payroll flexibility is there.

    • KC has used Danny Duffy and Jeremy Guthrie for over 120 innings each this year. The idea that we “cant” roll with certain guys seems reactionary. Surely want to do better, but we can have guys like that and win a ton of games. If Jeremy Guthrie pitched 150 innings in PGH with this years stats i think some fans would set things on fire.

    • A rotation with Locke and Morton got us the second best record in baseball…I’m all for signing another legit #3 and adding a reclamation project to see if he takes Locke’s spot if he can be signed cheaply… But the notion that we will never catch the Cardinals with Locke and Morton is a bit short sighted.

    • yeah, there is no way we can win 90 games in a season with those two in our rotation- oh wait, we just are about to do that again for the second year in a row

  14. It’s a very deep SP market this year so I would suspect the Pirates will have a very good chance to bring him back if they so desire.

    Even if he goes off to greener pastures like Volquez, than I have confidence NH will bring in a viable replacement. They seem to have the Midas touch in this particular area.

    • Jay Happ continues to impress and the Pirates needed that game last night. Interesting that he is linked with Volquez because both are 2.5 WAR guys according to fangraphs, which fits perfectly as our No. 3 guy in the Rotation behind Cole at 4.6 WAR and Liriano at 3.1 WAR. Although Burnett has missed a lot of starts, he is still at a 2.8 WAR. Of course Locke at 1.3 and Morton at 1.2 bring up the rear.

      Charlie Morton’s contract may be viewed as a reason why the Pirates may not negotiate a long term contract for a pitcher in their 30’s. And, this will be Happ’s last contract and he will possibly try to max out at $10 mil + for at least 3 years. Therefore, I do not see the Pirates going that high, especially with guys like Taillon, Glasnow, Kingham, Cumpton, and Worley in addition to current Rotation guys Locke and Morton.

      Now, if they can trade the $8 mil remaining on the Morton contract for 2016, then Happ would become a solid option for a 3 year contract.

      • AJ makes 8.5, so that comes off. Idk why that doesnt make everyone go “oh, well there’s most of the money needed for a semi low buy SP”.

        Morton’s contract isnt bad, you showed why in your post. 1.2 WAR for a guy making 8 million. Thats about even value for your money with a few starts left. Seems plausible to keep Morton, get a SP at around 8-10 million and be fine. A good chunk of money comes off with S Rod, A Ram, AJ, Bastardo, Soria.

        • Thank you.

          Morton is running a 3.91 FIP/3.81 xFIP after posting 3.72/3.78 and 3.60/3.69 the previous two years. Hammel is at 3.72/3.48. Volquez is at 3.71/4.26.

          This is 2015. If anyone is expecting appreciably better production for $8m/yr they’re about a decade behind.

          • I would love to see some analysis on “clustering” for pitchers, and whether Morton is a victim of that moreso than other MLB pitchers relative to other pitching metrics – in other words, the “one bad inning” syndrome.

            • He is ridiculously unlucky. He also struggles to end rallies once they start. That’s one thing that impresses me about Cole. He’ll give up 2 or 3 baserunners to start the inning and then put the clamps on.

                • He needs to command his curve better. That’s been a good out pitch for him at times but he doesn’t command it consistently.

                • And the massive lefty splits. I’ve long held the belief that his “mental” struggles or whatever balogna people claim come down to nothing more than sequencing of three or four lefties coming up in a row. Teams that can load their lineup are going to always present the Big Inning issue.

                  • NMR: I realize Morton is a very popular figure, but if I sign a SP for 3 years and $21 mil, I would like for that guy to be available to pitch 180 innings a year. Because of an injury he missed almost half of 2013. Based on his 20 starts/116 IP in 2013 he was given that 3 year/$21 mil contract during the off-season. 2014 saw him get 26 starts/157 IP before being injured again. In 2015 he missed a lot of the beginning of the season to injury, and right now stands at 19 Starts/113 IP.

                    His ERA has increased each year, and I am tired of waiting for him to become the pitcher we thought we were getting. Next year is his last year and he will be paid $8 mil; then there is a club Option for $9.5 mil?

                    This team has to move forward with some young RHSP’s and, IMO, we will have the kind of team in 2016 to overcome some hiccups. I would rather face those hiccups from Glasnow, 23 or Taillon 24, or Kingham 24 than from a 32 year old Charlie Morton in his last contract year.

                    • My response has nothing to do with popularity and everything to do with the reality of Major League Baseball salaries in the year 2015.

                      You can want all you please, but fact is that guys who throw at least 180 IP with an ERA under 4 are not $7m/yr players. They just aren’t, and they haven’t been for quite some time.

                      Now I can absolutely understand an argument that says you’d rather roll the dice on young arms than spend any money on starters. I’m just not sure the Pirates need to be that stingy. They have money, a ton of cheap and productive position players, and a need in the rotation.

                    • When did Morton become popular? Fans love to hate him and act like he’s a guy you can barely pass off as a 5th SP.

                      If Morton was a 180 innings guy, he’d be making more than he is now. His lack of durability and LHH issues are what make him a sub 10 million guy. He’s not terrific, and he’s getting paid like a non great pitcher. Idk, Charlie Morton at the 4-5 is fine at 8 million. Thats a level of investment we can afford, allowing time for young arms to arrive. Locke should easily be the first arm to go when a younger arm is ready.

              • It’s harder to end rallies when you’re not a strike out pitcher. How many times have we seen Cole get out of a jam with a big K or two? Morton doesn’t really have that in his arsenal.

  15. Another benefit signing Happ would give the Pirates: Keeping him would permit the Pirates to keep Taillon and Glasnow in the minors until they are truly ready for for a promotion. Once they are ready, the Pirates could find themselves with three to four pitchers they could trade (Liriano, Happ, Locke and Morton) to fill a need on the ML team or to replenish the minor league system with quality prospects. The yield in the Travis Snyder promises to greatly benefit the organization. Selling high on any of those four could greatly benefit the organization. The Cubs traded Jeff Scrabble for Addison Reed when they were rebuilding and Scrabble appeared to be a pitcher they would want to keep around and Castro appeared set at SS. With hindsight, that trade looks like it made the Cubs a perennial contender.

  16. A LHP plays well in the NL Central. HE would be a great option at 2Y/$20M and trade Locke or Morton at mid-season when you bring up someone from AAA. We need to be able to consistently beat Brewers, Cubs, Cards, and Reds to get the division top spot instead of the play-in game.

    • You could package Morton and Locke together, and you would not likely be able to get more than a six pack of beer in return. I was dreaming and hoping that the team would come to its senses and rid themselves of both of those guys in the coming off-season.

          • That depends on the 6-pack. If it’s Dogfish Head Burton Baton, I say yea. If it’s some crap from Coors or Busch, I say nay.

            • I do have a macro crush at the moment – Guiness Blonde, brewed right here in Latrobe. A divisive brew – BA reviewers love it or hate it. Like an American Adjunct, but with body. And much cheaper in PA than micro lager alternatives like Lagunitas, et.al.

                • Their lager, at more than $40/case, ain’t worth it IMO. I wish more micros would try lager/pils style, but I understand most don’t because it’s too difficult/expensive. IPAs and high ABVs are much easier and that’s where the market/buzz is. Seems everyone wants some note to hit them over the head instead of seeking balance. YMMY.

                  • Well, here’s the thing – and I take this approach with Sam Adams Octoberfest and Dogfish. If you buy a case it lasts you weeks and you don’t have to keep buying six packs or individuals and it saves money in the long run. So the initial purchase sucks but in the long run it’s worth it.

                    • It’s not the $40 per case. That comes out to $10 a six. It’s not worth the $10 per six for a lager/pilsner IMO. It’s simply not that great of a product.

                      Keep in mind, I’m just talking the lager, not the rest of the Lagunitas line. I like a lager/pils now and then. Much like I like a nitro stout now and then. Or a single IPA.

                      For that style, Guiness Blonde hits a sweet spot with me.

              • Yeah, I’m not really a fan of anything Guinness. It’s all boring to me. Guinness Stout tastes like chocolate milk not beer. I’ll take Victory Storm King Imperial Stout out of Philly. That’s a good stout. I’ve really been into Belgians lately. I gotta say, every time I visit Pittsburgh I always end getting beer from either my area or west coast like Lagunitas or Sierra Nevada.

                • Well if you like Belgians and Victory you have to try Golden Monkey (and you probably have). Victory is from really where I grew up after I moved from North Allegheny. Also if you’re going to drink Golden Monkey I’m going to have to recommend Uber then as well. I was never a fan of their Imperial Stout although many of my friends were.

      • Keep dreaming.

        Morton is an above average starter by FIP and among the top 1/3 of starters in the league (min 100 IP) by xFIP. He is equivalent to or better than the #4 starter on every contender except the (historical outlier) Cardinals based on FIP and xFIP. With a more consistent infield defense, his performance would match or beat his peripherals. A minimal upgrade on Morton would cost ~ $15 million on the open market or a couple of your top 10 prospects.

        Locke is what he is, a #5 starter. High performance variance, will stress out the bullpen every so often. He’s a league minimum guy, and will still be cheap next year. Fine to open the season with, and if you can upgrade mid-season – preferably from within – you do it.

        You are aware that this is the second best team in baseball, right?

        • If he is equal to most team’s #4s, that shows you how shallow the starting pitching talent level is then, If they can sign Happ for next year, I’d jettison Morton and Locke and replace them with some combination of Glasnow, Taillon, and Kingham.

          • I think you have to take a step back and realize that’s the reality of starting pitching. Look around the league at other teams #4’s and #5’s. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t be looking for upgrades but you definitely shouldn’t be appalled that Morton is your #4 or #5 in my opinion anyway. I think they’re going to start the season with Cole, Liriano, Morton and then a combo of Happ (if re-signed), Locke and/or a reclamation project. I think more than likely Glasnow and later Taillon could fight their way in or push out Locke by June or July. Worley is gone and Liz could be your long man or the guy who they could try as their #5.

          • If the Pirates can keep Happ for another year as a legit #4 starter masquerading as a #3 for half a season, I still would not get rid of Morton or Locke even as the young guys come up. Morton is a legit #4 and Locke is a cheap #5. There is almost no chance the Pirates only go through 5 starters who get more than 2 starts apiece in the first half of the season or a different cohort of starters getting more than 2 starts apiece in the second half when the rookies come up.
            He is dirt cheap depth, and compared to the rest of the Majors, a good option to have as the 5th starter, or more importantly as the 6th or 7th starter. Locke beats out most random AAA spot starter depth and does so for under a million a year. That is valuable even if he is not that good.

          • You can never have enough pitching.

            The Pirates need a #3 to start the season, that’s for sure. Happ could be that guy. It makes no sense to jettison a solid #4 in Morton without having a replacement who can be trusted to eat those innings. Kingham won’t be available until mid-summer, Taillon hasn’t thrown a competitive pitch in 2 years and Glasnow is completely unproven. None of those is an opening day solution. Relying on more than one at the same time is asking for trouble.

            You can jettison Locke when Taillon is ready, and ease Glasnow in as needed and when ready. 12 starts for Locke, give or take. And he does tend to pitch better in his first 90 or so innings.

            The 2017 rotation could be scary good.

        • Thank you. There’s nothing sexy about Charlies pitching style…but at 8mil, he’s a very good #4 SP. I’m not sure what people ever expect the 4s and 5s to be in a rotation…

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