The 2019 free agent class was supposed to be a monster haul for the Yankees, and it was supposed to start with Patrick Corbin. It just seemed to make too much sense. New York had shown an interest in trading for Corbin after the 2017 season. Corbin was from New York, had verbally expressed a desire to pitch for the Yankees to Bob Nightengale in a USA Today interview, and was only meeting with teams in the northeast. The Yankees stunned much of the baseball world by not even bothering to make Corbin an offer, and he signed a 6-year, $147M deal with Washington. Instead, the Yankees chose to bring back J.A. Happ on a 2-year deal with an option for a third year at 17 million per. This was a decision that will burn the Yankees in both the short and long term.
Corbin was better than Happ in 2018
Corbin was simply masterful in 2018. In his age 28 season he threw 200 innings on the dot, struck out 246 hitters (11.1 k/9) had a career low 3.15 ERA, and finished 5th in the Cy Young voting. Conversely, Happ had a solid 2018, but he was weaker in pretty much every area. Happ threw 177.2 innings, had an ERA of 3.65, and struck out 193 hitters (9.8 k/9)
Happ was showing signs of decline, while Corbin continued to blossom.
In 2018, Happ’s ERA increased for the third year in a row and his spin rate started to decline as well. Meanwhile, finally healthy and recovered from Tommy John surgery, Corbin had his best season ever as he entered his prime. The Yankees refused to give Corbin a six year deal to take him through his age 34 season, but they had no problem guaranteeing Happ a contract through his age 37 season (and his age 38 season if the option vests!). In what world does this make any sense?
Dollars and Sense
Some fans were fine with Yankees passing on Corbin, sighting cost. In reality, $140M was a very fair amount for a two time all star coming off a top 5 CY young finish entering free agency at age 29. Some fans preferred Happ to Corbin because he cost less. The fact of the matter is that he cost less because he’s not as good of a pitcher. You get what you pay for. The Nationals are paying Corbin $23M this year to pitch like an ace. Corbin has a 2.84 ERA on the year and his k/9 is up to 11.4. He is striking out batters consistently and will be in the Cy Young conversation again. The Yankees are paying J.A. Happ $17M and he barley looks like a major league pitcher, sporting an 8.76 ERA. All of his starts have come against the Orioles and White Sox, and he hasn’t been able to beat any of them. The Nationals are paying “A” money for “A” production, and the Yankees are paying “B+” money for “C-” production. When the Yankees refused to pay Corbin, some people speculated that maybe they were saving money for Machado or Harper. Nope, the Yankees weren’t interested in paying any of the top level free agent talent during a wide open championship window. Truly nauseating.
I don’t hate J.A. Happ. He was great in pinstripes last year, and last off season I actually wrote that the Yankees should sign BOTH Corbin and Happ. Happ is battle tested in the A.L. East. He is a consummate professional, great in the clubhouse, and extremely durable. I think his numbers will improve this year, and I was absolutely cool with bringing him back. The fact remains however that Corbin would have been a better fit on the 2019 Yankees. He’s younger, throws harder with better stuff, and expressed a desire to pitch here. The Yankees passed on him, and as he continues to dominate in Washington while Happ falters, it’s fair to question the decision. In trying to save a few bucks on the bottom line, the Yankees made a costly mistake.