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 over 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.