After rumors, Happ 'certainly happy I'm here'

February 14th, 2020

TAMPA, Fla. -- As the world learned of 's record-setting pact with the Yankees during the Winter Meetings in December, dashed off a text message to baseball’s most sought-after free agent: “I hope we’ll be teammates again.”

Cole and Happ shared a clubhouse with the Pirates in 2015, but it was not certain that they would again five years later. While the Yankees were busy wooing Cole with a nine-year, $324 million offer, they were simultaneously gauging the market for Happ, with general manager Brian Cashman stating that several teams expressed interest in trading for the 37-year-old left-hander.

“It's exciting to be back, and this is the place I'd like to be, for sure,” Happ said. “I was just preparing regardless, so I understand that it’s kind of the nature of the business. But I'm certainly happy I'm here."

Happ said that he had a brief conversation with Cashman during the winter, seeking to clarify the accuracy of the rumors. Any prospective talks involving Happ cooled when reported increasing discomfort in his lower back, eventually leading to a surgical procedure that will keep the left-hander out of Major League games until at least May.

That development cemented Happ in the rotation, projecting as New York’s No. 4 starter to open the campaign. Coming off a season in which he allowed a career-high 34 home runs, Happ said that he focused his winter workouts on digging into analytics and adjusting his repertoire, aiming to increase the consistency of his offspeed pitches.

“If you look at a lot of his outings last year, it felt like there were a number of times where he was pitching really well and maybe a long ball got him and kind of wrecked the outing a little bit,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “We obviously feel like he threw the ball well down the stretch for us and even in the playoffs. We feel like the work he's done this winter has put him in a good position. I fully expect him to be the J.A. Happ we've seen for most of his career.”

Happ also took note of the 27-page report released by Major League Baseball in December, which concluded that a league-wide increase in home runs could be attributed to inconsistent seam heights on the Rawlings baseballs as well as hitters’ growing embrace of launch angle.

“I don't like to make excuses, so I think any answer other than ‘I need to be better,’ it's not the right answer,” Happ said. “I do need to be better and I plan on being better, but to the effect that that report came out and affected a lot of players, not just myself, that was disappointing.”

Though Happ finished the season 12-8 with a 4.91 ERA in 31 games (30 starts), he was encouraged by his September performance, when he posted a 1.65 ERA and held opponents to a .188 batting average in 27 1/3 innings despite pitching through left biceps tendinitis.

“The hope is to continue along that trend,” Happ said. “The more that I learned about everything, I think I started to feel a little bit different toward the end of the year there. I think that was a big difference, so trying to maintain that was important for me.”

Deep dive
Cole tossed his second bullpen session as a Yankee on Friday, taking the mound alongside Happ, and . As he did on Wednesday, Cole conducted a post-workout breakdown of his actions, to the entertainment of Boone, catcher and third-base coach Phil Nevin.

“He probably goes into the most detail that I've seen,” Boone said. “It seems like there's no stone left unturned with him. He really has a specific understanding or intention with everything he's doing, which I think is really valuable. His intelligence is part of what makes him great, along with having elite characteristics to his pitches. His ability to communicate … I think it really benefits us, and it's hopefully something that speeds up that learning curve.”

Prospect watch
, the Yankees’ No. 1 prospect as rated by MLB Pipeline, was part of the third group of pitchers to toe the bullpen mound on Friday. The 20-year-old right-hander is viewed as a long-shot contender to break camp as the No. 5 starter, coming off a campaign in which he advanced from Class A Advanced Tampa to Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

“You see why we're excited about him,” Boone said. “His ability to spin the ball is something that he's known for, and obviously he’s a guy that at a very young age has rocketed through our system. … There’s so many guys that you can really dream upon, you can really picture having a really good big career, and Deivi certainly falls into that category. It's exciting.”

Up next
Yankees pitchers and catchers will continue to work out on Saturday at Steinbrenner Field. Admission is free for all workouts through March 20, and gates will open to fans at approximately 10 a.m. ET.