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Yankees' J.A. Happ surprised, disturbed by slow free-agent market

Happ re-signed with the Yankees in December, getting a two-year, $34-million deal with an option for 2021.

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ throws during the American

Yankees pitcher J.A. Happ throws during the American League wild-card workout day at Yankee Stadium on Oct. 2, 2018. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

TAMPA, Fla. — J.A. Happ didn’t have to sweat it out this offseason, as many of his free-agent brethren did — and continue to do.

But that doesn’t mean the lefthander, whom the Yankees brought back in mid-December on a two-year, $34-million deal  with an option for 2021, stopped paying attention to the still-glacial free-agent market. And he has strong feelings about it, as most players do.

“It’s surprising and it’s disappointing,” Happ, 36, said Friday after a morning workout at the Yankees’ minor-league complex. “I know we’re [the Players Association] working on ways to change this, but it’s frustrating for sure to see all the quality guys out there that can help teams win not being signed this close to spring. It’s a bummer.”

The Yankees, though not active in pursuing the top names on the market — Manny Machado and Bryce Harper — made their share of moves on that front. Among them, of course, was the signing of Happ, as well as CC Sabathia and two of the best relievers on the market, Adam Ottavino and Zack Britton, the latter a trade-deadline acquisition by the Yankees last season (as was Happ).

“You try to weigh the pros and cons everywhere, but the biggest pro coming back here was the fact I was able to spend two months here and learn what the team’s about, learn some of the players, get to know them,” Happ said of his decision to return. “And I know that they’re [the Yankees] all in every year trying to win a championship. Especially at this stage of my career, that’s a big motivating factor.”

Happ did his part after joining the Yankees last season, going 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts, with the one glitch coming in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Red Sox. He took the loss that night after allowing five runs in two innings.

Still, Happ’s seamless transition to the spotlight of New York made him a priority for general manager Brian Cashman this offseason.

“He was a performer,” Cashman said during December’s winter meetings. “Took the ball every five days, he was a competitor, came as advertised. A real pro. Knew exactly what was necessary and brought it every five days in the most competitive division in baseball. He checks all the boxes on that side of it.”

Happ joins a rotation that includes Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sabathia and James Paxton, a trade acquisition from the Mariners early in the offseason. On paper, the unit looks strong. But Happ, about to enter his 13th season in the big leagues, knows that doesn’t mean much.

“I like it, but I’ve also been around long enough to know it doesn’t matter what anybody says on Day 1,” Happ said with a smile. “I think the biggest thing for us is staying healthy. I certainly like what Pax can bring to the table if he stays healthy. I played with him in Seattle a couple years ago [in 2015] and saw the glimpses there. And I was on the other side last year when he threw a no-hitter against us [in May while Happ was a Blue Jay]. So that’s exciting. I like where we’re at but don’t want to get into it [projecting] too much.”

The same goes for the bullpen, a powerful group a season ago that could be even more dominating in 2019.

“It looks good on paper,” Happ said, smiling again. “I like it. You certainly theoretically feel good about those guys coming in after a guy like myself or whoever comes out of the game. It feels good having those guys coming in to close it down for you.”

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