Happ Has Been a Great Story, But How Long Will That Story Continue?

PITTSBURGH — I don’t think anyone expected J.A. Happ to be as good as he’s been for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lefty came to the Pirates with a 4.64 ERA and a 4.16 xFIP with Seattle. His addition was last-minute, with a sudden need for a starter after A.J. Burnett went down with an injury. His first start was rough, leading many to not want to see him make another start with the Pirates.

Happ turned things around, putting up a 1.53 ERA and a 2.84 xFIP in his next nine outings, heading into today’s game with the Reds. In the process, he turned many into a believer in his abilities and that the recent success was real. For Clint Hurdle, the “is Happ for real?” question was answered early.

“Probably [his] third consecutive start, established start, consistent start, with all the same staples and indicators in play,” Hurdle said on when he started believing in Happ. “The first time was a nice step back from where he was, the second start, OK, good. The third time, I’m in. His fourth outing here.”

As for whether this type of early acceptance is normal, Happ said that it depends on the person, noting that some might still not trust the lefty.

“There might be people here that still haven’t bought in, I don’t know,” Hurdle said. “Everybody’s wired different on what they see. There’s also a recency bias that can be contended with for everybody, that they remember the last start the best, and that can negate what they saw [in] maybe the first three starts, and vice versa. You believe in what you believe in. You watch swings, you watch him following the glove. You watch the quality of the pitches. That tells you. Things that spoke of a great value so far for us: an overall consistency in all these starts has been way past interesting. It’s been fun to watch.”

How much the Pirates believe in Happ might be shown this off-season. They’ve had a history of going after reclamation projects, and Happ was the biggest example of that this year. But they also showed with Francisco Liriano last year that they’re willing to bring a guy back at market rate if they believe he can continue his success. Neal Huntington didn’t specifically say if they’d try to bring back Happ, but did say there’s interest.

“We’ve got a number of free agents. I think by far the largest group of free agents that we’ve had since we’ve been here,” Huntington said. “In some way, shape, or form, each one of them could play a role for us as we go forward if they want to return. J.A. has thrown outstanding since coming in here. There’s interest. It’s just a matter of how it all comes together, how it works for him, how it works for us.”

As for the immediate future with Happ, and whether he could pitch in the post-season, Huntington may have let it slip that Happ is in the plans for the NLDS rotation.

“He certainly has thrown the ball about as well as we could have expected and hoped for,” Huntington said. “We’re not done yet, and we’re hoping he’s got a handful of more gems out there for us to help us win the World Series.”

It would make sense to put Happ in the rotation, especially since he’s been the best starter on the team since the deadline. The alternatives would be Jeff Locke and Charlie Morton, and there’s no question Happ would be the better choice. He also has previous post-season experience to draw from, which is an advantage.

If today is Happ’s last start of the season — and it could be if they lose the Wild Card game — then he would have provided the best story of the year, in my personal opinion. It’s tough to make a call on a multi-year contract based on less than a dozen starts, but everything Happ has shown so far says that he’d be worth the consideration.

Game Notes

**Neal Huntington said before the game that Jung-ho Kang is doing great in his rehab.

“He wants to be out here with his teammates,” Huntington said. “He’s recovering as well as you can recover. It’s still early. He came out and visited his teammates, and they kept him engaged. He’s doing tremendously well. He’s frustrated. He’s anxious. He can’t wait to get back doing things again.”

The Pirates are still working through whether Kang will join the team on Wednesday for the Wild Card game, although that could be a challenge, depending on his health.

“He’s wanted to be here, it’s just a matter of does it make sense for him health-wise and medically,” Huntington said.

There is also the issue of Kang going home to Korea over the off-season, versus staying in Pittsburgh for his rehab. Huntington said that they’ll find time for him to go home, but that this would be another challenge, as each step of the rehab process provides different areas to work on.

**Huntington didn’t tip his hand on the off-season work, but did say that the team has a good core in place, which will lead to some challenging decisions.

“We still love the core,” Huntington said. “We’re going to have some challenging decisions to make this off-season, as we had last off-season, as I hope every off-season that we’re here. We do like our core, and we believe that we can continue to progress.”

**Today all of the games started at 3:05 PM EST, which means that no team had an advantage of knowing ahead of time whether their game would matter for the playoffs. In the Pirates’ case, they need a win or a Cubs loss to clinch home field in the Wild Card game. The Cubs went up early, taking a 3-0 lead, while the Pirates went up 1-0 in the first inning, with Happ dealing a strong frame.

“I think playing every game at the same time puts us all on even footing,” Huntington said. “The Cubs can go about it differently if they played now or later than we did.”

**Clint Hurdle on Bobby LaFromboise, and what he’s done differently this year:

“I think getting an opportunity, getting out of an organization where opportunity left, getting a new opportunity. Getting involved last year helped his confidence. Pitched a few games at this level, had some challenges in the offseason, and the spring wasn’t what he wanted, but he kept a good mindset about it, about working and getting better. And he had a very solid Triple-A campaign. Command got a little bit better. Tightness and the spin of the slider got a little bit better. Started to throw his changeup more to right-handers, that got a little bit better. So the combination of experience, maybe want, desire, and knowing that he scratched the surface and got a foot in the door, wanted to get more, I’ve seen it happen with players before.”

  • Who was the one that was going on and on and on about how Happ was a terrible signing, calling him another Zach Duke?
    Oh yeah, foo or bug or lee whatever his name was then.

  • I just can’t imagine Happ getting many multi-year offers with his body of work. Prior to his run with the Bucs, he was decidedly mediocre. I won’t be surprised at all if he’s pitching for the Bucs next year on a 1yr deal worth less than $10MM.

    • Although I agree with the sentiment a 4 year deal is unlikely, I think a 1 year deal is just as unlikely. It’s gonna start at 2 years, and the winner signs him for 3.

      It’s probably his last shot at multi year deal, and all it takes is one foolish GM.

      • Same thing was said about Liriano, and that fourth year never came.

      • I cant see anyone going 4 either. 3 is the stretch, 2 is the relative smart move. He’s not (or his agent isnt) dumb enough to settle for 1 after potentially the best few months of his career. If this is his best few months of play, he’s gotta demand 2 years.

        • I’d agree if he doesn’t believe in himself.

          But if he thinks he can come close to repeating what he’s done these last few months, the easy choice is a one year contract to get back onto the open market as soon as possible. An option deal might be what gets it done.

          • Except for one thing: Happ turns 33 in a couple of weeks. I think it’s now or never for him to go for as long-term a deal – or as much money – as he thinks he can get. If it’s 2/20 vs 3/27 or similar, I think it’s even money he takes the longer term.

          • Option deal makes sense to hedge bets.

  • For the next three years if he stays with the Pirates. If he goes elsewhere, who knows?

  • Aside from Cole, I’d start him ahead of anyone on this club right now. Dude’s been AWESOME.

    GO BUCS.

  • I thought he was a bum after the first start. I was wrong.

    I was terrified today would be the day the fairy tale would end. I was wrong again.

    I’ve come to the opinion…if loving Happ is wrong, I don’t want to be right.

  • I would sign up for a two year deal similar to what Volquez and Colon got. And the 3/30 someone threw out the other day, maybe. But for some reason, I think he’s gonna get more, maybe 4 years into 40 million range. That’s where I look at the career numbers and think, eventually that guy will reappear. I would pass at those numbers.

    Good for him and his family. Maybe this is an exaggeration but he may have doubled his money these last two months. The fact he’s lefty helps a lot.

    • There’s a lot of supply out there this winter, I don’t know if we are likely to see a 4-year deal for a 33 year old who has had two dominant months with no prior history of dominance. Volquez, after all, had only a 2-year offer, and he had more going for him: age (31), sellers’ market, a previous solid season in ’08, better ERA n his walk year. The list of non-TOR arms that get more than 3 years is very very short.

      • I think we can get Happ for 2=$20M. And considering what we pay for Charlie Morton and what we’ve got from him, $20M would be good for Happ if he can pitch anywhere close to how he has for us…even if he pitches next year and has a season-ending Era similar to this season, 3.55-3.65, I would be thrilled with that from our #3 and he also gives us that as a strong second lefty.

      • But if a couple teams go 3 years, isn’t it always adding that 4th that gets the deal done? What your saying makes a ton a sense, but when it comes to baseball free agency there’s always some lunacy. And if you look at the free agent pitchers available, he’s actually far from being the oldest.

        • None of those guys is getting a 4-year deal either. Price, Zimmermann, Leake, Greinke, probably Cueto, probably Kazmir, maybe Shark get more than 3 years. Those last 3 haven’t done themselves any favors post-ASB. Gallardo is a tossup. Everyone else is old, has a history of injury, or performance doesn’t warrant the commitment.

          Teams are wary of signing free agent pitchers to long contracts. position players might get that 4th year, but for a guy like Happ, it is more likely that the winning bid will be more dollars rather that a fourth year.

        • There is a ton of decent SP on the market this offseason, so that doesnt help Happ. He has been great, but its half a season so its going to blunt his value a bit.

          4 years for what amounts to half a year of success after years of really replacement level like play doesnt seem likely to warrant 4. Seems more likely a number of teams offer him 2, and the few teams offering 3 would have a leg up and it’d come down to price+where he wants to go. 3/40 would be relatively understandable, but he’s not gonna be anyone’s plan A.

          • Francisco Liriano got 3/$39m just one year ago, is a much better pitcher of baseballs.

            3/$40m for Happ would be insane.

            • Oh i agree it’d be insane, but i think its understandable in the sense that pitching hilariously overpriced and someone might be dumb enough to do that in order to get him.

              I think smart teams are going to offer him 2/20, and some teams desperate might go 3/30-35, but it’ll only take 1 team totally trusting his “change in approach” to throw Liriano money at him considering Liriano’s deal was relatively nice to PGH.

    • I’d like to re-sign Happ AND bring Colon over on a 1-year deal. I think Colon is the perfect transition guy to give Bucs solid outings until the kids come up. And while he’s not the fiery leader AJ was, he’s a vet that teammates love and can learn from.

      • bucs: Running out of fingers to count the folks in the Rotation – are you suggesting we trade Charley Morton, Jeff Locke, or do the BP for both? If we could find somebody (Texas) to take Morton’s $8 mil salary for 2016, it would open the doors to a lot of guys, both young and old. Locke has quietly put up 51 Starts, 300 IP the past 2 years, and is still only 27 entering his first year of Arbitration. Also, he flashed a few 94 mph pitches this year – could he have an extra gear out of the BP?

        • Six starters is certainly not too many when you start the season with no SP depth in the system.

          Colon, even at 43, is an upgrade over Morton or Locke. His worst season in the past five was 2.4 WAR. Re-signing Happ gives you two LHP in the rotation. Locke becomes immediately expendable, or you can move him to pen.

          Morton is more problematic due to his contract and walk year. There’s certainly rationale for trading him if you got Colon, but you’d still have SP depth issues. So you try to figure out what to do with his delivery to give him more deception and hope for the best for two months until the kids arrive.

          • The only problem with that Colon statements is that he’s only been an upgrade to Morton and Locke in terms of durability, not performance. His value is generated from going out and throwing 200 innings every season, which would be very useful for a team lacking young depth about to break into the league. Good thing for the Pirates, that’s not likely to be a situation they’ll find themselves in next season. You’re also not signing any reputable starter for less than the $8m Morton would be making, so the money saving argument can’t be made either.

            On the whole, though, I agree that six starters should be a minimum for a contending team in the year 2016. Morton or Locke should be playing the role Vance Worley took early this year, with the hope that they would be able to transition into more of a usable piece once (if) their starter depth isn’t needed.

            • That’s a valid point. But Colon fits a very specific need, that of a quality #4 SP available on a one-year deal to bridge to Taillon/Glasnow. He doesn’t block anyone going forward. If the Bucs wanted to go after Kennedy or similar, I wouldn’t complain, but I prefer the “fit” that Colon provides at this specific point in time and at a reasonable cost (I’m going to assume no more than 1/$11).

              What would you do with Kennedy in a 2017 rotation that potentially offers six starters in Cole, Liriano, Happ, Taillon, Glasnow and Kingham (and I personally re-sign Happ over signing Kennedy because LHP and I’m trusting the “new” approach).

              Yes, Colon’s peripherals aren’t significantly better. But whatever one may think about whether “quality starts” is a useful stat, Colon had 19 of them out of 31. And that’s better than Morton and much, much better than Locke. He’s still dependable and his arm appears to be sound. Plus, he has no issue going to the pen (and would be useful there) if that’s what’s warranted after the kids arrive.

              • All good points, and the need for 6 SP’s might be essential because 2016 starts with 12 games in a row in April, then a day off before 16 straight games stretching into May. But I think all of this is good if Happ signs with the Pirates. That gives us 3 solid guys with either Morton or Locke as the 4th. From that point anything is possible.

                The original plan was to have Taillon for a half year in 2015 and then he would start his MLB Service in 2016 – if he comes in strong in Feb do the Pirates plug him in immediately or wait the 2 or 3 weeks to get past Super 2? Or wait until Jun? If Kuhl comes in strong in Feb, would the Pirates want to do that same thing with him rather than Taillon. He has the college experience, is a ground ball machine, and pitches with excellent Command. However, with how he has developed so quickly, could he have #2 or #3 possibilities?

                • Chad Kuhl? Chad Kuhl isn’t close to being good enough to not only completely bypass AAA, but start in the big league rotation to begin the year.

                  I think if anything you’ll see Taillon held back a bit to start the season, like this year, in the hopes of him being usable down the stretch. The club seems to be smartly planning for the inevitable shut down scandal.

                  • I think you underestimate Kuhl, but we all have opinions. Taillon needs to log 150 innings in 2016 which is about what he was averaging before TJ. I hope most of those innings are pitched for the Pirates. We have to start blending in some kids while guys like Cole and Liriano are at their best.

                    I think it is very possible to have 2 and possibly 3 new SP’s from within our system find their way to Pittsburgh in 2016.

                    • Ha, I’m not saying anything about Kuhl’s potential, but come on man. You have to know that the Pirates are not going to skip any prospect over an entire level, especially one that is currently fringy at best.

                      Barring injuries, of course, I definitely think the club should have at least two rookie arms in the rotation by the end of 2016, with Brault and Kingham ready to step in a year after.

                • There is no way that Kuhl is even remotely ready for MLB. If he doesn’t develop a strikeout pitch, he will never be better than a #5 starter – in 2017 or 2018.