LAS VEGAS – One of the Yankees’ top free-agent targets is almost back in the fold. After watching potential rotation fits Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi agree to contracts elsewhere last week, the Yankees were closing in on an agreement Wednesday night with lefthander J.A. Happ.
A source confirmed that a deal was close but not done. Happ’s representatives had been insistent on a three-year contract – with whatever team landed him – while the Yankees were just as insistent on two. Indications are the compromise will be a two-year deal with a vesting option for a third year based on starts and innings.
“It’s hard to say I’m ever close on anything,” general manager Brian Cashman said of an imminent deal with Happ. “Because until you’re done, you’re never done. Obviously, Happ is a target.”
Happ, 36, was terrific down the stretch for the Yankees after they acquired him from the Blue Jays before the July 31 trade deadline. Keeping Happ was among Cashman’s goals once free agency officially began after the World Series because the GM wanted to add two rotation pieces this winter. Assuming the Happ deal gets done, which is expected by Thursday, Cashman technically will have added three. CC Sabathia was re-signed to a one-year deal in early November, and James Paxton was acquired in a trade with the Mariners later that month.
That would give the Yankees a rotation of Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Paxton, Happ and Sabathia. Cashman, however, said he wouldn’t rule out pursuing one more starter.
Among those options could be Yusei Kikuchi, the 27-year-old Japanese star who was recently posted as a free agent. Cashman confirmed he had talked with Kikuchi’s agent, Scott Boras, though the Dodgers, Giants, Mariners and Padres are more likely landing spots.
Cashman said bringing back Happ would give him “more comfort, [but] it doesn’t mean we’d be out of the market altogether. Obviously, the Paxton acquisition gave us the ability to be a lot more disciplined and patient and less stressed. And if we can pull down another one [Happ], it will put us in a much stronger position to feel better about the rotation, but that doesn’t preclude us from being open-minded to any other options that develop. And in the meantime, it does allow us to pivot and focus on other aspects of the roster, too.”
Those other priorities are the addition of at least one and perhaps two bullpen arms as well as infield depth to help offset the absence of Didi Gregorius, who will miss at least April and May as he recovers from Tommy John surgery. The Yankees have engaged with the agent of Manny Machado, but it remains to be seen if they’re willing to commit the years and dollars that have been speculated (eight to 10 years for more than $300 million is what many in the industry think Machado will get).
While Cashman declined to address the Happ negotiations specifically, he enumerated some of the reasons the Yankees wanted him back.
Happ went 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts for the Yankees, with the one blip coming in Game 1 of the Division Series against the Red Sox. He took the loss after allowing five runs in two innings.
“He was a performer,” Cashman said. “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. Clearly that’s why he’s an attractive target in free agency.”
The Yankees are on the verge of putting together a formidable rotation based on the starting five's 2018 results and career track records:
*Luis Severino 19-8, 3.39 ERA 41-25, 3.51
James Paxton 11-6, 3.76 41-26, 3.42
Masahiro Tanaka 12-6, 3.75 64-34, 3.59
*J.A. Happ 17-6, 3.65 109-82, 3.90
CC Sabathia 9-7. 3.65 246-153, 3.70