An agreement made between MLB and the MLB Players Association on Monday could force the Yankees into an uncomfortable position of maximizing trying to win this year versus adding $17 million they will not want on their 2021 payroll.
MLB and the union finalized that all vesting options will be paid in full, but what makes options vest will be prorated for a 60-game season.
Thus, J.A. Happ’s 2021 option remains $17 million. But the vesting triggers fall from the veteran lefty having to make either 27 starts or throw 165 innings in a standard season to the prorated 10 starts or 61 ¹/₃ innings.
The Yankees like Happ, but not at $17 million next year — if at any total. The Yanks could decide in a year in which they will take in considerably less revenue without spectators, at least to start this abbreviated season, to cut payroll for 2021.
No matter what, though, if the Yanks were prioritizing potential free-agent starters, they would place James Paxton and Masahiro Tanaka ahead of Happ, plus among just free agents, DJ LeMahieu would be added. Thus, if Happ were to trigger his $17 million option, it would potentially force the Yankees to make tough financial decisions elsewhere and/or probably have to eat a significant bit of Happ’s salary to trade him.
Over a full season, the Yanks would probably be able to find a way to manipulate the starts and innings to keep Happ from reaching the 27/165 thresholds. That becomes harder in the shortened season if Happ stays healthy — and durability has been one of his assets. Even last year, when he struggled, Happ still made 30 starts (31 appearances). In his first 12 starts last year, Happ did not pitch well (4.83 ERA), but still covered 63 ¹/₃ innings.
Happ looked good both in the first spring training and this current 2.0 version and is important to this roster. Luis Severino and Domingo German will not pitch this year. Masahiro Tanaka was hit in the head by a Giancarlo Stanton line drive and no public disclosure has yet been made whether he will be able to begin the season in the rotation. Aroldis Chapman and Luis Cessa are out after testing positive for COVID-19, hitting at depth to spread around innings.
A healthy starter likely would get 12 starts in a 60-game season, so the Yankees could use an opener three times in front of Happ to eliminate his chances to reach the 10-start trigger.
As for the 61 ¹/₃-inning threshold, the Yanks could limit a few Happ starts. But that begins to mess with strategy if Happ is actually pitching well. In a shortened season in which each game has even greater value, do the Yanks want to put any result in peril by artificially pulling Happ when he is going well or not using him if he is pitching well?
Happ would have to average just a tad more than five innings an outing for 12 outings to eclipse the 61 ¹/₃ innings. And if Happ feels the Yanks are purposely using him in a manipulative way, he could file a grievance.
At the moment, he would be part of a rotation with Gerrit Cole, Paxton, Tanaka (if healthy) and Jordan Montgomery. Pitchers such as Michael King, Jonathan Loasiga and Clarke Schmidt could be used for bulk innings to lessen the total thrown by a starter.
And perhaps snipping an inning here or there and using an opener a few times will not harm the Yankees. But what if it did? What if how MLB and the union agreed to handle vesting options this year placed the Yankees in a decision in which they had to decide what the right move was now versus the right move for the 2021 Yankees?
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