Can J.A. Happ Fill Toronto Blue Jays' Pitching Needs In 2014?

By Thom Tsang
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

It’s time to talk about J.A. Happ.

That probably wouldn’t have been something that most Toronto Blue Jays fans wanted to hear as the team headed into the offseason, but it’s a message that’s been driven home pretty loud and clear as the team is about to exit it with nary an arm outside of Tomo Ohka in tow. It might have seemed a little sad to listen to manager John Gibbons pump up the team’s no. 5 pitcher last season as someone who could be a potential solution to the bluebirds’ pitching needs going into 2014 … but as long as the team is resigned to their fate, I suppose there’s really no choice but to give the prospect some consideration.

So, how much can the lefty help? Well, the cup-half-full answer is that he probably won’t be a Ricky Romero-ish nightmare and will actually contribute to the team’s success.

While he might not be a name player like Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Garza or Masahiro Tanaka, the fact is that Happ is a decent pitcher who is capable of some success. After all, he did pitch to a 1.2 fWAR season over 92.2 innings despite a near-death experience with a line drive that took away most of his 2013. Most notably, he posted a 2.97 ERA through 33.1 innings in September, something that seeming reinforces the team’s confidence in him to have a “big” season.

While that number is likely a little misleading given that he still carried a WHIP of 1.41 and was bolstered by a 74.8 percent strand rate, he did pitch to a 3.65 FIP with a 2.23 K/BB that month which suggests that as long as he can keep his walks down, the 3.86/1.25 ERA/WHIP that he posted in April of 2013 isn’t exactly totally a pipe dream.

And to be fair, if those are numbers that he can sustain all year long, he will be close enough to a 3.0 fWAR pitcher that would essentially give the team a Jimenez/Ervin Santana type without having to dole out cash or draft picks.

Then again, putting up those kinds of numbers through 150-plus innings in a season is a different story from doing it through month-long chunks, and the cup-half empty view will tell you that Happ simply hasn’t achieved that kind of consistent success. Even in his first full season with the Philadelphia Phillies in 2009 where he posted a  2.93/1.25 ERA/WHIP, he was only a 1.5 fWAR pitcher with a 4.33 FIP that was helped out by a generous 85.2 percent strand rate.

In that sense, this has really been his demonstrated ceiling throughout his career in the bigs thus far as he has never posted a FIP lower than 4.00 in a season — outside of the 2.80 that he put up with the Blue Jays in 2012, when he joined the team for an excellent 1.2 fWAR, 40.1 IP stint.

That pitcher with the 10.26 K/9 isn’t really Happ, of course — at least not for a full season. Given the way that his career has gone thus far, the Blue Jays already know what they’re going to get, barring some positive intervention of the baseball gods. That would be a pitcher who can throw around 150 innings with an ERA in the mid-4.00s who will more than likely have his share of control issues.

In short, he’ll be the player than he has always ideally been — a no. 5 starter.

Will that be enough for the Blue Jays, who seem to have a plethora of backend starter candidates but not enough talent at the front end? Well, much of that will be determined by whether folks like Drew Hutchison and prospects Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman can move forward enough to become middle-of-the-order impact arms in short order.

Fans already know that Happ can go on short runs of success; if those are enough to buoy the Blue Jays while the higher-upside guys navigate the learning curve, the lefty won’t have to be too much of a 1.5 fWAR player for the Blue Jays to hopefully find something that sticks with a mix-and-match approach.

But as for whether he alone will make a difference the same way that the immediate addition of a 3.0 fWAR pitcher will? Well … let’s just say the cup doesn’t look that full.

Thom is an MLB writer for Follow him on Twitter @BlueJaysRant, or add him to your network on Google

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