LAS VEGAS — J.A. Happ’s imminent return to the Yankees gives the club five starters for five spots. What it doesn’t do is halt the hunt for more.
Happ agreed to a two-year deal with an option on Wednesday that will become official and announced after contract language is worked out.
When done, Happ’s deal will be for two years at $34 million — $17 million each season — with a $17 million 2021 option based on games started or an innings-pitched threshold in 2020. So it could be three years at $51 million if it maxes out.
“It gives me more comfort,’’ general manager Brian Cashman said about adding a starter, but didn’t identify Happ. “It doesn’t mean we would be out of the market altogether. Obviously the [James] Paxton acquisition gave us the ability to be a lot more disciplined and patient. If we pull down another one it will put us in a much stronger position to feel better about the rotation. But that doesn’t preclude us to being open-minded about any options that develop over time.’’
Cashman said filling out the five-man rotation with the 36-year-old Happ allows him focus on other areas. He has been looking for two relievers to work in front of closer Aroldis Chapman and setup man Dellin Betances and an infielder who can play short until Didi Gregorius returns from Tommy John surgery on his right elbow.
Yet, if another starting candidate surfaces in free agency or a trade, Cashman isn’t going to ignore him simply because he has Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Paxton and Happ.
“If we are able to close the loop on something [Happ], that is not going to preclude me from being open-minded moving forward,’’ Cashman said.
One possibility is 27-year-old free agent lefty Yusei Kikuchi, who some teams view as a reliever after being a starter in eight seasons in Japan, where he went 74-48 with a 2.81 ERA in 163 games (158 starts). Kikuchi could offer rotation insurance while filling one of the two vacancies in the bullpen. Zach Britton, who is being shopped as a closer, and David Robertson are free agents, which created the bullpen openings in The Bronx.
Having watched Happ go 7-0 with a 2.69 ERA in 11 starts after coming from the Blue Jays in late July for infielder Brandon Drury and outfielder Billy McKinney provided Cashman with a comfort level of what Happ was about.
“He was a performer, took the ball every five days. He came as advertised, a real pro and had a veteran’s presence in the clubhouse,’’ Cashman said when asked what he liked about Happ, who went a combined 17-6 with a 3.65 ERA in 31 starts and was a first-time All Star before pitching poorly in a Game 1 loss to the Red Sox in the ALDS. In two-plus innings the Red Sox spanked Happ for five runs four hits. “He knew exactly what was necessary and brought it every five days in the most competitive division in all of baseball in the world. He checks all the boxes on that side of it.’’
In the past three years while working for the Blue Jays and Yankees, Happ posted a 47-21 record and a 3.44 ERA. Happ, who the Phillies had serious interest in, is 70-47 with a 3.88 ERA in seven AL seasons and 39-35 with a 3.92 ERA in seven years pitching in the NL.
As for the bullpen vacancies, there is a little more depth in the free-agent market than there is for starters.
Andrew Miller, Adam Ottavino and Robertson are the headliners for non-closers. Craig Kimbrel, Jeurys Familia and Britton are closers who remain unsigned.
On the day agent Scott Boras said the Yankees haven’t informed him they are out on free agent outfielder Bryce Harper despite Cashman saying this week there is no room for another outfielder, Manny Machado’s name continued to be linked with the Yankees, who haven’t publicly ruled him out.
However, if the 26-year-old Machado becomes a Yankee it’s very possible he won’t get the $300 million-plus deal he reportedly is seeking.
Additional reporting by Joel Sherman
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