In what might have been his final start in the hitter-friendly confines of the Rogers Centre, J.A. Happ effectively shut down the first place Atlanta Braves. He lasted 8 1/3 innings, his longest outing since early 2016. Of his 113 pitches, Happ threw a season-high 79 of them for strikes, consistently pounding the zone, en route to eight strikeouts. Like he has done all season, Happ resembled an ace for the third-place Blue Jays, a team poised to be one the biggest sellers ahead of, or at the trade deadline.
Fittingly, Happ’s performance came with Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos in the building. It was AA, the former Blue Jays executive, responsible for initially acquiring Happ in a 10-player trade from the Houston Astros in 2012. From that point on and through 2014, in a starting rotation featuring a variety of Ricky Romero, Drew Hutchison, Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey, and Marcus Stroman, to name the most prominent, Happ was, by all accounts, what he was acquired to be: A bottom-of-the-rotation starter. In 58 appearances (50 starts), he averaged 7.96 K/9 , 3.46 BB/9 with a 4.39 ERA, and 4.08 FIP.
In one of the most compelling offseason’s in Blue Jays history, a winter that saw separate trades bringing the relatively unknown Marco Estrada, then prospect Devon Travis, and eventual American League MVP Josh Donaldson to Toronto, in December 2014, Anthopoulos completed the overhaul by trading Happ to Seattle. He’d make only 20 starts with the Mariners before changing teams once again, this time to Pittsburgh. It was with the Pirates that Happ began to find his groove.
Back in the National League, from August onward, Happ was one of the best pitchers in baseball. In 11 starts with the Pirates, he upped his strikeout rate from 6.8 K/9 to 9.8, walked fewer batters (2.7 BB/9 to 1.8), and finished with a 1.85 ERA while being worth an incredible 2.6 WAR. The performance, however brief, was enough to entice Blue Jays executive and then interim general manager Tony LaCava, who rewarded Happ with a three-year, $36-million contract shortly after Anthopoulos’ departure.
“It wasn’t difficult,” Happ told MLB.com during a 2015 conference call with reporters after the contract became official. “Going into the offseason, I was open to all 30 teams. We wanted to explore everything and see where there were fits. We were happy there was a lot of interest and we were really happy Toronto was being aggressive.”
As it turns out, the Blue Jays were right to bank on Happ. Since returning for his second go-round with the team, not only has Happ proved the brilliant stretch with the Pirates was no fluke, he’s surpassed expectations, pitching as one of the league’s most reliable and efficient starters.
The Blue Jays entered the 2018 season with little room for error. We knew that either the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox would win the division, with the other earning home-field advantage as the first of two wild-card teams. Instead, the hope was that with a few additions, the Blue Jays would perform better than the 86-loss squad of a year ago and, at best, compete with the Los Angeles Angels, Seattle Mariners, and Minnesota Twins for that second, and final playoff spot. Though early projections favored the Blue Jays, of course, it’s never that easy.
Now, with the club five games under .500 and a tough upcoming schedule that includes series’ against the Angels, Astros, Yankees, Braves and Red Sox, maybe other than Aaron Sanchez, no one on the Blue Jays roster - one filled with several players on expiring deals - is untouchable. Slowly built is one of baseball’s most improved farm systems, featuring elite players such as Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, coupled with the re-emergence of Sean Reid-Foley, and the development of T.J. Zeuch. With the team’s current state in mind, the Blue Jays are fully expected to pounce on the opportunity to try and further deepen the system. Of course, they aren’t alone. There will be several bottom dwellers looking to accomplish the same, but at this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more attractive rental pitcher than Toronto’s №33.
Happ, who will turn 36 in October, has proven his commitment to the organization, city and fan base runs deep. Remarkably, and perhaps unknown by many, Happ now ranks 10th all-time among Blue Jays starters with 663 strikeouts, and his cumulative showing in 2016, in which he went 20–4 with a 3.18 ERA, stands as one of the best single-season performances by a pitcher in Blue Jays history.
With time running out for Donaldson to get back on the field and return to form, and Estrada only recently finding his groove on the mound, Happ is one of the few players that has consistently justified, and subsequently augmented his value. An ideal outcome would be for Happ to land the Blue Jays some quality prospects, win a World Series, and then return in the offseason, if he so wishes. But that conversation is for another day. Right now, as things stand, he is, by far, the Blue Jays’ most relevant asset, serving as the front office’s best chance at acquiring young talent to lead the future.