It wasn’t a surprise to anyone to hear that the Seattle Mariners had dealt outfielder Michael Saunders. After a tumultuous couple weeks at the conclusion of the 2014 season, there was an obvious tension between the two parties that would probably only be resolved by a conclusion of the relationship.
The Toronto Blue Jays were identified as a potential fit for Saunders and earlier in the week would acquire the Victoria, BC native in exchange for starter JA Happ. Toronto needed some help in the outfield with the departures of Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus to free agency and Anthony Gose to trade and Seattle had a need for some rotation depth as well. Saunders is pencilled in as the Jays everyday left fielder, but where Happ fits in Seattle is not as clear.
After the introductory press conference for free agent signing Nelson Cruz, GM Jack Zduriencik commented that he viewed Happ as a No. 3 or 4 starter in the rotation next year. Suggesting Happ could be a No. 3 starter is a stretch to say the least. Though Erasmo Ramirez began the 2014 season as the club’s No. 2 starter so the order may not be all that important to management.
Happ has added some velocity back to his fastball recently, but otherwise is a very average back-end of the rotation starter. On a good team he will be your No. 6. The 32-year old made 26 starts for the Blue Jays in 2014 and posted a 4.22 ERA and 4.27 FIP in 158 total innings pitched. He has struck out less than eight batters per nine over the course of his career but has walked nearly four per nine, which is concerning. The left-hander did post the best walk rate of his career this past year though at 2.91 walks per nine innings.
The prevailing wisdom with Happ is that Safeco Field will give him the same boost that veteran Chris Young received last year. The southpaw has a 42.2 fly ball percentage for his career and despite the fact Safeco isn’t as pitcher-friendly as it was a few years ago, it still plays well to hurlers like Happ and Young.
The former third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies is owed $6.7 million for 2015, but Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports that the Blue Jays will be sending some cash Seattle’s way. The amount is expected to be around the difference between the salaries owed to Happ and Saunders in 2015, though nothing has been officially confirmed yet. Saunders was projected to earn a salary in the $3 million range as an arbitration eligible player.
For roughly $4 million then, the M’s get a No. 5 starter for 2015 — Happ will be a free agent at season’s end — and a replacement for Young who isn’t expected to return at this point. One other interesting note from Divish is that Zduriencik admitted he had started receiving calls on Happ the day after he was acquired. While it’s certainly not atypical for clubs to ask how a team plans on using a player, there are plenty of teams that could have interest in Happ for the back end of their rotations.
If the Mariners were willing to move Happ, and presumably they are in the right deal, perhaps Zduriencik’s description of the left-hander as a No. 3 or 4 starter is merely a case of up-selling or setting his valuation on the player. It’s doubtful that the words of Zduriencik would alter other teams’ valuations, but it doesn’t hurt. After all, he sent an everyday outfielder to the Jays in exchange for Happ and it is doubtful that he will receive similar value in a potential trade given the amount of pitching available on the market.
[pullquote]Happ was acquired by the Jays from the Houston Astros in July 2012 as part of a ten player mega-deal that didn’t feature any prominent talent. He was also one of the pieces sent to Houston by the Phillies in exchange for Roy Oswalt back in 2010.[/pullquote]
Seattle had a legitimate need for pitching depth and Happ does provide some of that. Beyond Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma the M’s have top prospects Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, and rookie standout Roenis Elias to fill the rotation. Ramirez is also in the mix as depth and is out of options. If Happ is in the rotation Elias is likely to start the season at Triple-A. Ideally the M’s keep Ramirez in the bullpen as a swingman or deal him. Otherwise he would have to pass through waivers to be sent to the minors.
Happ fits because he gives the club another left-handed arm and, depending on the amount of money the Jays chip in, isn’t unaffordable, but he doesn’t offer much upside at 32. Any number of National League teams could look at Happ as a pitcher who would benefit from pitching in the senior circuit and may be willing to give him a shot. The M’s have been involved in trade talks with the Atlanta Braves who recently non-tendered Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlan and could look to shore up the rotation. Ervin Santana is also a free agent and is not expected to return.
Obviously Happ doesn’t bring Justin Upton or Evan Gattis back to Seattle, but he does give the M’s another piece to work with in potential trade talks. Other teams such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, Miami Marlins, and San Diego Padres could be potential fits for the left-hander.
There’s obviously no rush to attempt to trade from the pitching staff, but it’s more likely than ever that Jack Z will be tempted to do so at the upcoming Winter Meetings. A Paxton or Walker will bring the highest return, but a guy like Happ can provide some insurance should the club decide to go that route. So far Seattle has shown a reluctance to include Walker in potential deals for Upton and Matt Kemp and things have been very quiet surrounding James Paxton.
Stockpiling arms is never a bad thing to do. Especially for a club that saw four-fifths of their rotation on the disabled list last season. Happ is usable in the No. 5 spot, but it’s possible that he could be the sweetener needed to get a deal done.
Clubs love cheap starting pitching, but they prefer cheap starting pitching that has shown an ability to get major league hitters out.