TORONTO – All things considered, Wednesday afternoon went pretty well for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Kendrys Morales hit a two-run home run on his birthday, Randal Grichuk got another big hit and the Blue Jays beat the Atlanta Braves 5-4 to wrap up a 4-1 homestand. Nothing wrong with sending home 45,563 fans happy.
Big picture, the day went well for another reason. J.A. Happ put together another exceptional outing, adding to his value as arguably the top starting pitcher available on the summer trade market.
"I know he’s in demand, and I can see why," manager John Gibbons said. "If you were on the other end of it, I’d want him, too. That’s the reality of the business. Who knows what happens, but I’m sure he’s probably going to be top of the list out there of guys that could be acquired."
The left-hander was around the plate all day, throwing 79 of 113 pitches for strikes and becoming the first Blue Jays starter to work into the ninth inning this season. He struck out eight without walking anyone, and allowed just six hits, two of which were solo home runs to Kurt Suzuki and Peter Bourjos.
With a 3.56 ERA and 102 strikeouts in 91 innings, Happ’s putting together an all-star calibre year. Advanced metrics suggest his success is sustainable, too, as his FIP of 3.49 and xFIP of 3.39 are right in line with his ERA.
Even if you believe that some regression likely awaits the 35-year-old left-hander, good luck finding a better starting pitcher on the trade market. On paper, the New York Yankees, Seattle Mariners and Washington Nationals look like potential suitors for starting pitching, with more buyers sure to emerge in the next month.
"I try not to look at those kind of things," Gibbons said. "All I know is he’s done a lot for this organization. He’s really turned into one of the better pitchers in the game. Twenty wins a couple of years ago and he could do it again this year."
Having already been traded four times, Happ’s familiar with the rumours and speculation that surface every summer.
"I’m a little more prepared mentally now after having been through it a few times," he said. "The first time (in 2010) was really emotional and you kind of get used to it and realize it’s part of the business. I certainly enjoy it here, so I’ll just try to continue to have fun."
Those are some of the reasons Happ has now become the Blue Jays’ best summer trade chip, and there’s another factor in play, too. Although Josh Donaldson could eventually become one of the most coveted position players available, he’s not heading west with the Blue Jays on their upcoming road trip. Instead, Donaldson will work out at the team’s Dunedin, Fla., facility with a view toward returning to rehab games as soon as his left calf permits.
Until then, the Blue Jays can’t exactly market their $23-million third baseman to would-be buyers (the visiting Braves look like one potential fit, and the St. Louis Cardinals have long-standing interest in Donaldson, to speculate on two possibilities). For Donaldson to re-establish his trade value, he must first return to the field and then perform at his typical level. At this point, it’s still unclear when that’ll happen.
As long as the Blue Jays are awaiting Donaldson’s return, most of their best trade chips are pitchers. Happ tops the list, of course, but Marco Estrada should also be in demand, and relievers such as Tyler Clippard and John Axford will also be made available.
Last summer, the Blue Jays acquired minor-league starter Thomas Pannone and infielder Samad Taylor for rental reliever Joe Smith, yet replicating that deal with Clippard or Axford could be challenging considering how well Smith was pitching at the time of the trade (3.28 ERA, 51 strikeouts, 10 walks in 35.2 innings).
One reliever who would have substantial trade value is Ryan Tepera, who collected his fifth save of the season in relief of Happ despite allowing two inherited runners to score on a pair of ground ball hits. There’s no urgency to trade Tepera, of course, but the Blue Jays aren’t in a position to rule the possibility out if someone calls.
After all, it’s time to look ahead in Toronto. Realistically, that means the better Happ pitches, the more likely it is he’s dealt.
"I certainly enjoy pitching here," Happ said. "I signed to play here and try to get this team to the playoffs and that’s still my goal. That’s what I want to do. Until somebody tells me different, I’m going to have fun doing that."