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MLB potential trade target: J.A. Happ

In a market that’s unlikely to yield a bona fide ‘ace’, second-tier starter J.A. Happ is getting some looks from potential contenders despite some considerable concerns.

MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at Boston Red Sox David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Starting pitchers acquired by contending teams at the MLB trade deadline can often make a huge difference come October. Late season acquisitions have the potential to be remembered for taking a team further than anyone figured they could go. Although it’s been a couple decades, fans still remember the Diamondbacks 2000 deadline trade for Curt Schilling, setting up one of the most formidable one-two punches ever with Randy Johnson, and people can reminisce about C.C. Sabathia’s impact when he joined the Brewers in 2008.

This year however, there does not appear to be any clear number one starter on the market, leaving teams to wonder if it is worth pursuing some of the lower-tiered starters. Although we hear rumblings about Jacob deGrom, no amount of tasty metaphors make a deGrom trade any more likely.

One of the names swirling around the rumor mill is Blue Jays’ left-handed starter J.A. Happ. The 35 year old journeyman is on his fifth MLB team and has been moved six times in his decade-long career. Happ’s 2016 and 2017 were mediocre, riddled with inconsistency and underperformance.

He primarily relies on his fastballs, as he’s deployed his four-seamer 54 percent of the time, next only to his two-seamer, which he has thrown nearly 20 percent of the time. Complementing the hard stuff with offspeed pitches, he splits the last quarter of pitches between sliders and curveballs.

On the plus side, Happ has improved his strikeout rate by about one batter per nine innings compared to last year, and his walk rate has remained fairly constant. Despite this however, his FIP, xFIP, and ERA have all deteriorated.

One of the issues facing Happ has been his propensity to give up the longball. Just last night, Happ gave up a grand slam to Red Sox slugger Mookie Betts on the 13th pitch of an at bat, Happ’s 17th diger allowed this season. The performance added to a month-long ineffective streak that is coming at the worst possible time for Toronto.

Even prior to his meltdown in Boston, Happ’s recent performances have been less than inspiring for teams aimed at adding an arm for a playoff run. Happ has allowed at least three runs in every start since June 13th, including an early exit against Boston, where he gave up six runs in 3 ⅔ innings, a blasting at the hand fo the Yankees, who roughed him up for seven earned runs and ten hits over 5 ⅔ innings.

Happ’s last start of at least six innings, and fewer than three runs, was on June 8th against the middling Orioles. Even in that start, he walked two to only three strikeouts. Since June, Happ has hardly reinforced the notion that he can be a playoff starter against some of the best offenses in the game, and all year he has struggled against right-handed batters, giving up 15 of his 17 homers to right-handed hitters. When you consider the heavily right-handed lineups of the Astros and Red Sox, the two most dangerous playoff opponents, things look pretty grim.

Adding to the challenge, is his difficulties at home. In 64 innings in Toronto, Happ has given up 39 earned runs, and has allowed a whopping 12 home runs. When you take a deeper look, the damage hitters inflict on him is unsurprising. Over 80 percent of Happ’s contact allowed is classified as either hard or medium hit; combine that level of contact with a 41 percent fly-ball rate (his highest since 2013) and it spells trouble.

Add on the fact that he is in the last season of his contract, and brings with him a tie to a draft pick, it makes him that much more challenging to move.

Baseball is a fickle game however, and warts and all, Happ may have some suitors who are desperate enough for a live arm that has the potential to go deep into a game on a good day, they’re willing to take the plunge. The Yankees have most recently been linked to him, though the Cubs and Dodgers could use some additional rotational depth as well. New York got a good look at how bad Happ can be in person last week, and his performance against Boston can’t help his cause. Although Boston’s potent offense is one of the best in the league, the Yankees can’t be reassured adding Happ to face them, potentially multiple times, is worth the price of admission. The Red Sox righty-dominate lineup makes it even trickier.

Still, with a struggling Sonny Gray (who actually pitched well against Baltimore on Wednesday) and injuries to Jordan Montgomery and Masahiro Tanaka, New York may have no choice but to pull the trigger and hope for the best.

Happ is in the last year of his deal, has a draft pick attached to him, and is worth nothing to the Blue Jays who sit 15 games out of a playoff spot. They are incentivized to trade him for practically anything, so there is a good chance he gets moved. While the return may be underwhelming, don’t be surprised to see Happ in another uniform by August 1st.

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Steven Martano is an Editor at Beyond the Box Score, a Contributing Prospect Writer for the Colorado Rockies at Purple Row, and a contributing writer for The Hardball Times. You can follow him on Twitter at @SMartano