CARLSBAD, Calif. — More than one report out of baseball’s GM Meetings this week in Southern California have the White Sox in pursuit of free-agent starting pitcher J.A. Happ.
White Sox very busy checking in on free agent players . Pitching key . Veteran J.A Happ falls into role of productive pitcher with playoff experience and leadership skills. He is one of several players they are working to sign.— Bruce Levine (@MLBBruceLevine) November 7, 2018
Sources: #WhiteSox active in starting pitching market, with interest in Patrick Corbin and J.A. Happ, among others. The reason: Reynaldo Lopez is the only current White Sox pitcher who threw 50+ IP this year with a sub-4.00 ERA. @MLB @MLBNetwork— Jon Morosi (@jonmorosi) November 7, 2018
The 36-year-old Happ, an Illinois native who attended Northwestern, might not be at the top of fans’ wish lists. He’s not Patrick Corbin nor Dallas Keuchel, the two big-name free-agent starters on the market. But he does seem to make sense after hearing Rick Hahn rave about what a veteran starting pitcher could bring to the White Sox rotation in 2019.
“We have short-term needs that we can’t ignore,” Hahn said, referencing the two holes in the team’s starting staff heading into next season. “We have to augment the pitching staff, both the rotation as well as the bullpen. Those most likely will come via free agency. There’s a chance via trade, but most likely via free agency given the supply of what’s out there and given that we do have some economic flexibility.
“So you will see some veterans added, in part to address our short-term needs but also with an eye toward how they can play a role in the clubhouse in mentoring some of our younger guys. There’s definitely an important role, one we haven’t shied away from being a part of this at some point.
“It would be marvelous if we could be the first team in history to win a World Series with 25 homegrown players. We’re realistic. We know there’s going to have to be additions from outside the organization, the veterans who can play a role in mentoring the young players certainly have some appeal.”
It’s a role that James Shields served in during the 2018 campaign, earning rave reviews as a mentor to Lucas Giolito and others. Shields made a big impact off the field and ended up tremendously reliable on it, one of 13 big league pitchers to throw 200 innings.
While Shields is available, a free agent after the White Sox declined his pricey option, perhaps it’s Happ who Hahn & Co. hope can serve in a similar capacity.
“Having someone in there who provides a level of stability for the rotation and dependability every fifth day has some appeal that you would allow young players to go through some of the growing pains that are inevitable in their development,” Hahn said. “Having someone who can play that veteran, mentor role who can help teach guys whether it's from a game prep standpoint ... or any level of alteration with certain pitches, which is where James had the biggest impact in the minors.
“Having a guy who can play that role has appeal. It's not just what a guy can do between the white lines, it's what a guy can do for you in the clubhouse, is part of this equation.”
As for what happens between those lines, Happ was excellent after a midseason trade from the Toronto Blue Jays to the New York Yankees, where he posted a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts. The results weren’t nearly as good prior to the trade: a 4.18 ERA in 20 starts with the Jays. But he had an ERA under 4.00 in each of the three seasons prior, playing in Toronto in 2016 and 2017 and splitting time between the Seattle Mariners and Pittsburgh Pirates in 2015.
Last season, he struck out a career-high 193 batters. Perhaps more importantly, he walked only 27, a number worth noting considering the White Sox rotation led baseball in walks in 2018.
While plenty of Twitter-using White Sox fans have their sights on big-ticket items this offseason, Happ is an addition that would fit in more with what the team is doing with their rebuild. He could serve as a short-term fill-in while the White Sox wait for Michael Kopech to recover from Tommy John surgery and for Dylan Cease to complete his development in the minor leagues. If a deal were to be for multiple years, that would also be sensible, with Happ serving as both a bridge to those younger players and a safety net of sorts should they go through some to-be-expected growing pains on a team looking to contend in 2020.