Checking in on Happ and Saunders

 After the conclusion of the 2014 season we had a pretty good idea that Michael Saunders had played his final game with the Seattle Mariners. Comments made by general manager Jack Zduriencik and the player suggested that it was time for the two sides to part ways. Such things happen in the world of professional sports, and the armchair GM’s quickly began to determine where Saunders would be dealt and what a potential return would be.

I’ll admit it: I wasn’t particularly ecstatic to find out that J.A. Happ would be acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for the outfielder. The pitcher more resembled Chris Young — who was available as a free agent for a couple million bucks — than a starting-calibre outfielder.

One of the concerns raised by the Mariners was in regard to Saunders’ durability. The left-hander missed time in 2013 but still managed to appear in 132 games while in 2014 he missed significant time with an oblique strain and was limited to just 78 games.

Interestingly enough, however, Saunders finished the year with 2.0 fWAR — tied for third on the team among position players with Dustin Ackley and trailing only Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager.

Unfortunately for Saunders, his 2015 season was stalled before it could begin — he tripped over a sprinkler head in the outfield of the Jays’ Dunedin practice facility and tore a meniscus in his left knee. Although the early prognosis was positive, Saunders didn’t make his season debut until April 25. The 28-year old barely managed to play in games for a week before the knee became an increased problem. Last Monday he had fluid drained from his knee and received a cortisone shot.

After an 0-for-4 performance against the Boston Red Sox on Saturday, the club placed Saunders on the 15-day disabled list with knee inflammation.

The knee, on his plant leg, has noticeably bothered Saunders at the plate this year and has limited the strength he’s been able to generate. In 36 plate appearances he’s managed just six singles and nearly all of his contact — 75 percent — has ended up on the ground. The idea behind the DL stint is that Saunders simply needs rest and there’s no point in having a dormant roster spot for another week or more.

Happ, 33 in October, was coming off his best year since 2009. In 26 starts he posted a 4.22 ERA and 4.27 FIP with a couple added ticks in fastball velocity factoring into his success. So far in 2015 his fastball has averaged about 0.5 MPH less than it did in 2014, but that data is based on April numbers and pitchers typically will build up their velocity as the season goes on.

In six starts this year Happ has produced a 3.29 ERA and a 3.48 FIP including five shutout innings against the Oakland Athletics on Saturday night. His strikeout rate is in line with his career numbers though he has managed to slash his walk rate in half — his career rate is 3.71 per nine innings compared to 1.88 per nine innings thus far.

Similarly to Young last year, moving a fly-ball pitcher like Happ into the pitcher-friendly confines of Safeco Field figured to yield some rewards. Interestingly enough, the left-hander has performed almost exactly the same at home as he has on the road, in very small sample sizes. His strikeout, walk, and home run rate splits are within decimal points of each other while his FIP and xFIP are identical.

Perhaps more importantly than Happ’s home/road splits is the role he has played in the Mariners rotation. He has been the club’s most consistent starter behind Felix Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma is currently on the disabled list with a strained back muscle and may not be available until early June. James Paxton and Taijuan Walker have had up-and-down sophomore seasons while the club is considering skipping Roenis Elias’ next start in the rotation.

The Blue Jays have had their own rotation struggles. After Marcus Stroman went down with a season-ending knee injury in the spring, Drew Hutchison was placed at the top of an inexperienced rotation. Both Hutchison and top prospect Aaron Sanchez have struggled while flashing signs of their potential. Rookie Daniel Norris has already been optioned to the minors while veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle have struggled.

It may be a stretch to suggest anything about an entire season two weeks into May, but I don’t think the Jays would be opposed to the idea of having 150 innings of league average performance from Happ in the rotation.

When healthy, Saunders has proved to be a decent player. He hasn’t been able to stay on the field with the Jays as of yet and has the remainder of this year and an additional year of eligibility to prove himself. Happ could be in the midst of a career year on the eve of free agency. He could also turn into a pumpkin by month’s end.

Despite how the trade may or may not have looked on paper five months ago the early returns suggest that the Mariners have taken the lead in this deal.

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Tyler Carmont

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