When the FanGraphs crowdsource contracts came out earlier this month, my thought was that the price for J.A. Happ seemed a bit high. He was projected for three years and $33 M, and that looked like a lot for a guy coming off his one good year, fueled by a seemingly impossible to repeat final two months.
Yesterday, Happ received more than that projection, getting three years and $36 M from the Toronto Blue Jays. That amount is just $3 M shy of the three years, $39 M guaranteed that Francisco Liriano received last year from the Pirates. Granted, Liriano’s price may have been held down due to compensation, but he also had a much better track record.
Liriano had a 3.20 ERA and a 3.26 xFIP in 323.1 innings over the previous two years with the Pirates, and was heading into his age 31 season.
Happ posted a 3.61 ERA and a 3.69 xFIP in 172 innings last year, heading into his age 33 season.
Maybe Liriano’s compensation held back his price a bit, but his better results and two years younger age should have made up for that. So either the Pirates got a great value with Liriano, or the Blue Jays paid a lot for one good year of Happ.
I think it could be a bit of both. The Pirates did get a great deal with Liriano, and that’s easy to say in hindsight after seeing his 2015 season. One factor last year was whether Liriano would continue his success, after so many inconsistent and poor seasons earlier in his career.
Those same concerns should exist for Happ. There’s a chance that he’s finally fixed and living up to his potential. If that’s the case, he will be well worth his $36 M price. But this is a guy coming off one good season after many years of the same inconsistent and poor seasons that Liriano put up.
Happ wasn’t even the first guy to get this type of deal this off-season. Marco Estrada received two years and $26 M, coming off a year where he had a 3.13 ERA and a 4.93 xFIP. He’s put up some good numbers in the past, but has never pitched more than 150 innings before last year, and is 32 years old. Granted, Estrada signed his deal with the same team that signed Happ, so this could just be a case where the Toronto Blue Jays are comfortable shelling out a lot of guaranteed money for guys coming off one good season, hoping that season wasn’t a fluke.
Brett Anderson is another case, although a more minor example. He received a qualifying offer from the Dodgers, and accepted it, which means he will make $15.8 M in 2016. He’s had a huge history of injuries, but put up good numbers last year in 180.1 innings. A one year deal won’t kill anyone, especially the Dodgers, but that seems like a lot of money to risk on a guy who combined for just over 200 innings in his previous four seasons.
It’s hard to say whether these deals set the market for starting pitchers, especially since two of the deals came from the same team, and one deal came from the team with endless money to spend. If these deals are an indication of how the off-season will go, then it seems that teams are going to be willing to take bigger financial risks on guys who seem to be big risks to repeat their performances.
I won’t say that Happ, Estrada, or Anderson are bad signings. Those are guys where it makes sense to take a risk (although of the three, I’d have Estrada in a distant third). The plan here is that you could potentially get value with a risky player, hoping that he doesn’t turn out to be a risk at all. That worked out for the Pirates and Liriano so far. If he hit the market this year, after a third straight good year and his best year yet, then he’d get much more than three years and $39 M. Maybe we’ll be saying the same thing about Happ next year.
The question for the Pirates is, how will this impact the market? If Happ and Estrada are getting $13 M a year, then the upper-middle tier guys like Jeff Samardzija could be pushing up to that range where it wouldn’t make sense at all for the Pirates to sign them. And the prices for risky players below Happ, such as Mat Latos and Doug Fister, could also go up.
One thing the Pirates have been good at is finding values on the starting pitching market, no matter how much teams are paying for starters. We saw that with Happ at the deadline. Other teams were paying ridiculous amounts for starters, and the Pirates got Happ for very little. They did the same thing in previous years with Liriano, Volquez, Liriano again, Burnett, and other smaller cases.
The Pirates could do the same thing again this off-season, although from the looks of things, they might have their biggest challenge yet in trying to find value. They’ve got top prospects like Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon in Triple-A, plus a lot of other prospects with starter upside, which could impact the approach. But even with those guys, they have a need for at least one starter next year, and as we’ve seen in the past, you can’t count on prospects to perform exactly when you need them, and you need plenty of starting depth. They’ll need to find a deal with a starter this off-season, and that might be more challenging based on the early results on the free agent market.