The Twins added a little balance to an all-righthanded starting rotation on Wednesday by signing veteran lefthander J.A. Happ to a one-year contract that guarantees him $8 million.
Happ (whose initials stand for James Anthony and are simply pronounced "Jay") has spent more than a decade in the big leagues, most recently the past three seasons with the Yankees. He owns a 3.98 career ERA, and it was 3.47 last season in New York
But the Yankees, after paying Happ $17 million in 2019 and a prorated amount ($6.29 million) of that same salary in 2020, in October chose not to exercise an option for another $17 million for 2021, making him a free agent.
At 38, Happ represents a breed that once was far more common on the Twins' roster: A veteran lefthander winding down a successful, All-Star career. Five other lefthanders have started games for the Twins at 38 or older, but of those — Rich Hill, Terry Mulholland, Kenny Rogers, Steve Carlton and Jerry Koosman — Hill's 3.03 ERA last year was the only one below 4.00, though Rogers (2003) and Koosman (1980) posted 13 and 16 wins, respectively.
Durability is probably one factor that attracted the Twins to their new starter. Happ has started 23 or more games nine times, and he made nine starts in the short season of 2020.
He'll be the lone experienced lefthander on the Twins' starting staff, assuming Hill, now a free agent, does not return. The Twins also have second-year lefthanders Lewis Thorpe and Devin Smeltzer as options, but 50 of their 60 games last season were started by righthanders.
Happ's contract, which will make him the second-highest-paid pitcher on the Twins' staff behind Michael Pineda ($10 million), becomes official upon completion of a physical exam, a source with knowledge of the negotiations said. It also brings the Twins' payroll for 2021 to roughly $80 million for 14 players with non-minimum guaranteed contracts, or about $87 million for a full 26-man roster (plus another $5-8 million in incentives likely to be earned by Kenta Maeda).
That's down substantially from the $135 million the Twins were scheduled to pay last season, but it's likely they will sign a few more free agents before the season opens in April, with Nelson Cruz their top target.
Happ was drafted in 2004 by the Phillies out of Northwestern, and he rose to the majors, albeit for only one game, in just three years.
He went 12-4 with a 2.93 ERA in 2009, helping Philadelphia win the National League pennant, and was the runner-up to Marlins outfielder Chris Coghlan in NL Rookie of the Year voting. But the following summer, he was included in a trade to Houston for Roy Oswalt, and that began a period of switching teams; he's been traded five times and has now signed three free-agent contracts.
Happ finished sixth in Cy Young voting in 2016 after going 20-4 with a 3.18 ERA for the Blue Jays, and he represented Toronto at the 2018 All-Star Game, earning a save by pitching the ninth inning.
Primarily a fastball pitcher, Happ's velocity has largely stayed consistent in the 91-93 mph range, and averaged 92.0 mph in 2020. He throws a slider roughly 20 percent of the time, according to MLB pitch data, a pitch that averages 89.6 mph, and has a sinking fastball that he uses primarily against lefthanded hitters.
He's not the strikeout pitcher he once was, but he still whiffed 21.4 percent of hitters he faced last year, 42 in 49⅓ innings. He held hitters to a .208 average in 2020, and a .227 average on balls in play.
Home runs can be a problem, although pitching in Houston, Toronto and Yankee Stadium over the past decade likely made the flaw appear worse; Happ has allowed more than 20 homers in a season six times in his career, including a career-high 34 in 2019, fifth-most in the AL.
Returning in the rotation for the Twins are Jose Berrios, who led the team with 12 starts; Maeda (11); Randy Dobnak (10); and Pineda, who started five after completing a suspension. Hill had eight starts and free agent Jake Odorizzi four.