J.A. Happ is whining. And crying. And moaning. And he needs to shut up and recognize the reality of his situation.
Yes, the Toronto Blue Jays acquired him last year to be a late-rotation starter. After picking him up from the Astros, Happ acquitted himself well with a 2.80 FIP and 3.75 xFIP, hidden under his 4.69 ERA. He bounced between the bullpen and the rotation for the second half of the year but looked like a solid bet to be in the rotation for 2013.
When the Blue Jays then went out and acquired Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson from the Marlins in the offseason, Happ still looked safe as the fifth starter in a now-deep rotation. But Alex Anthopoulos thought pushing all of the chips in was a smart move (I happen to wholeheartedly agree), acquiring R.A. Dickey to round out the pitching staff.
That relegated Happ to dreaded "Sixth Starter" or swing-man territory, where he’d either be rotation depth in the minors or in the bullpen ready to start at a moment’s notice.
And now Happ is angry. In fact, he told Bluejays.com that, "I'm a Major League starting pitcher." This week he followed up by telling The Globe and Mail that, "This stuff will be handled in private. We’re kind of getting down to it [the regular season approaching] so ..." indicating that he will be initiating discussions with the team. This probably means he’ll be asking for a trade.
But he shouldn’t be. At least, it’s not warranted. Here’s why Happ should suck it up and appreciate his role, work his tail off and be ready to be called upon.
He’s getting paid pretty damn well to suffer the horrible torture that is pitching in Triple-A. He will earn $3.7M this year, making him the richest man in Buffalo by a margin of about $3.699M. He's also still controllable, and those are the breaks as an MLB players without adequate service time. Sorry, bruh. Now, if you wanted to argue that the Jays should initiate the discussions because that’s a pretty pricey insurance policy, you’d have a better leg to stand on.
Happ has 96 career starts with a 4.17 ERA and a 3.81 FIP. He’s good, not great, and he’s almost certainly the sixth best starting pitching candidate in camp. Question Ricky Romero’s potential for a bounce back if you’d like, but Romero at his best is far better than Happ at his, and it makes far more sense for the Jays to give Romero the chance to self-correct.
And guess what? Happ probably won’t be in the minors for all that long, anyway. Pitchers get hurt. A lot. In fact, at Sloan, Stan Conte estimated the starting pitcher injury rate in a single season is 50.3% with an average DL stint of 65.3 days. That seems extreme, of course, but the DL days can get heavily inflated by a season-long injury. Those aren’t exactly rare these days, and while I really hope it doesn’t happen, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Beyond just the league-wide numbers, the Jays have two pitchers in particular who tend to need a caddy for their workload:
Ricky Romero has been a workhorse with three straight seasons of 32 starts. Mark Buehrle has started 30 or more games in a ridiculous 12 straight seasons, averaging 219 innings. And R.A. Dickey has thrown 600-plus innings over the past three years with 65 starts the past two years. He’s also a knuckleballer, and they tend to be less susceptible to injuries. Perhaps this trio is, for whatever reason, less prone to injury than the average starting pitcher. Even then…
Josh Johnson started 31 games last year, but he started just nine in 2011, 28 in 2010, a full 33 in 2009, 14 in 2008 (and five in the minors), four in 2007 (five in the minors), and 24 in 2006. He is not exactly the picture of durability, averaging just 20 starts a season for his career. There’s a non-zero chance that Johnson needs some time off at some point this year. And…
Brandon Morrow started just 24 games last year (and five in the minors). He started 30 in 2011 and 26 in 2010, numbers that were a bit lower due to workload concerns, since he bounced between roles prior to that with the Mariners. It’s difficult to call Morrow injury prone, but he has been managed gingerly and we haven’t seen him throw more than 179.1 innings in a given year (188.2 if you include minors).
It’s pretty damn unlikely that the Jays don’t need a sixth starter at some point during the year, maybe even for an extended period of time. Playing in the minors will hurt Happ’s service time and arbitration leverage, but playing well when called up will make up for some of that.
He also has a chance to make the playoffs again. He appeared in 2008 and 2009 for the Phillies, and I’m sure he’d love to be back, even in a complementary role like he was with Philadelphia. And while he’s not a free agent until 2015 at the earliest, we know that having "playoff pedigree" can help a player’s reputation, fair or not. It’s also a higher-profile situation, which never hurts the resume (unless he collapses).
I understand Happ thinks he’s an MLB starter, because he is. But this situation isn’t as bad as he appears to think, and he’s had since Christmas time to understand this was the case with Dickey in the fold. He’s going to get opportunities, and they’re going to be important, high-profile opportunities if the Jays end up being as good as we think they might be. Yeah, he might lost some arbitration money in 2014, but that’s the life of being an MLB player still under control. You don’t get to just ask out, and in this case I don’t think he should.