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Happ focused in final year before free agency

Blue Jays' veteran starter ready to limit distractions this time around
MLB.com @gregorMLB

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Donaldson is not the only prominent Blue Jays player who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Lefty J.A. Happ also finds himself dealing with the same level of uncertainty.

Happ rejoined the Blue Jays prior to 2016 on a three-year deal worth $36 million. The contract received a lot of criticism at the time from people who felt like it was an overpay, but instead the signing turned into a major bargain.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Josh Donaldson is not the only prominent Blue Jays player who will be eligible for free agency at the end of the season. Lefty J.A. Happ also finds himself dealing with the same level of uncertainty.

Happ rejoined the Blue Jays prior to 2016 on a three-year deal worth $36 million. The contract received a lot of criticism at the time from people who felt like it was an overpay, but instead the signing turned into a major bargain.

Video: Outlook: Happ is a reliable mid-tier hurler

There's another level of pressure that comes with performing in a potential walk year. Every pitch is critiqued. Every outing impacts a player's future stock. The scrutiny can be too much for some players, but the laid-back Happ has been down this road before and believes he's better equipped to handle it this time around.

"I think you just try not to get caught up in it," Happ said. "Players know that in the back of their head. But from my standpoint I'm just going to focus on the team and try to just go about my business as usual. Focus on that and I think the rest of the stuff will take care of itself. Otherwise, it just adds more pressure to the situation."

Happ's final year before free agency was a bit of a roller-coaster ride the last time around. Prior to 2015, the Blue Jays sent Happ to Seattle as part of a deal for outfielder Michael Saunders. The veteran lefty got off to a slow start with the Mariners and had a 4.64 ERA at the non-waiver Trade Deadline before he was dealt again, this time to the Pirates.

In Pittsburgh, something finally clicked. Through his work with renowned pitching coach Ray Searage, Happ posted a 1.85 ERA over 11 outings and used to the strong run to secure the three-year deal with Toronto. He hasn't looked back since, with a 20-win season in 2016, followed by a 3.53 ERA in an injury-shortened '17 campaign.

:: Spring Training coverage presented by Camping World ::

"I think it's how you want to handle it," Happ said, of limiting the distractions. "But whether you can sit there and do that, regardless of how things are going, that can be a challenge. Having gone through it before should help ... we'll see. I want to help the Blue Jays and I feel like if I can focus on that, like I have the last few years, it should take care of itself."

Happ has basically become Mr. Reliable for the Blue Jays. This year's spring is essentially the exact same as the last several ones. He's not working on anything particularly new and instead is just trying to shake off the rest, build up his endurance and rediscover his old form.

Video: Happ struggles with injury but finishes strong in '17

Thursday's outing during the Blue Jays' eventual 4-1 loss to the Pirates was another step in the right direction. Happ allowed a solo home run to veteran Sean Rodriguez, but that was his lone blemish over two innings. He threw 32 pitches, 20 for strikes, and did not walk a batter while striking out three in his second outing of the spring. Happ is expected to raise his pitch count to approximately 45 the next time out.

"I thought he looked good," Blue Jays manager John Gibbons said. "Building up [that arm]. We didn't get many runs, but we're saving them."

Gregor Chisholm has covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @gregorMLB and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.

Toronto Blue Jays, J.A. Happ