J.A. Happ arrived in Fort Myers on Wednesday after missing the beginning of Spring Training. He and Matt Shoemaker were signed for a combined $10 million to fill the void left by Jake Odorizzi. While he might not be the sexiest signing of all time, he represents an emerging trend in the Minnesota Twins front office.
When Derek Falvey and Thad Levine arrived in 2016, they inherited one of the league’s worst rotations. The complete lack of pitching talent that season was a major culprit in another 100-loss season, but it also marked the turning point with the starting rotation.
Since 2016, the Twins team ERA has improved every season, going from 5.08 to 3.58 in 2020.
While the development of young pitchers such as Jose Berrios has helped, Levine has maximized the value of veteran pitchers via free agency and trades.
Michael Pineda was the first instance of this strategy. Since then, we’ve seen the Twins get the most out of their players’ talent by putting them in the right situation.
Kenta Maeda, for example, had a solid run with the Los Angeles Dodgers but was never at the top of the rotation. L.A. even stuck him in the bullpen during their numerous post-season runs. While Maeda found some level of success out of the pen, that’s not necessarily where he’s best suited. He even said in multiple interviews that he prefers to be in the starting rotation.
When Levine traded for him before the 2020 season, Maeda exited the crowded pitching corps in Southern California and instantly became a top-of-the-rotation starter in Minnesota. He had arguably the most productive season of his career in COVID-shortened 2020, finishing second in Cy Young voting.
Even Rich Hill, who came over in the same trade, ate a lot of innings for Minnesota despite nagging shoulder injuries.
The Twins hope lightning strikes again with the signing of Happ, who is far from his former glory days — on paper. He struggled in his stint with New York Yankees and is now 38 years old. In 2019, Happ allowed a league-leading 34 home runs and heard about it from the Bronx faithful.
But a change of scenery could be all the difference Happ needs to return to his 2018 form. There are actually several reasons to believe the lefty could see a major bounce-back.
First and foremost, he doesn’t have to pitch in the most hitter-friendly ballpark in the MLB. Transitioning from Yankee Stadium to Target Field, which is much more of a pitcher’s park, should help cut down on the home runs.
That alone should help shrink his career-worst 4.91 ERA. Plus, now he gets to deal with the cuddly Minnesota press instead of the combative New York media.
I’m only half kidding. Moving to a smaller market could make all the difference. It doesn’t seem like a total coincidence that Maeda, Hill, and Pineda all came to the Twins from big markets and found success here.
Signing veteran guys like Happ is far from a long-term decision, but it’s the type of decision that needs to be made when you’re in “win now” mode like the Twins are. It would be nice if Baldelli could have one or two more young guys at his disposal for years to come, but that’s not the case.
The reality is that the organization has failed to develop homegrown starting pitching. With one of the best lineups in the league, Minnesota is in championship mode. That means putting a rotation together by any means possible, especially when you’ve got a young Chicago squad on your tail in the central.
It’s been a while since the Twins have had an impact lefty in the rotation, but Happ could fill that gap this season and help bring the rotation to the next level.
If we’ve learned anything over the last couple of seasons, it’s that Minnesota has been able to get massive production out of some of the most unlikely people, and Happ could continue the legacy.