Ross Atkins on Blue Jays’ interest in J.A. Happ: ‘He would be a great fit’

J.A. Happ during his time with the Toronto Blue Jays. (Nathan Denette/CP)

LAS VEGAS — Patrick Corbin and Nathan Eovaldi are now officially off the market, so as the Winter Meetings begin at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, the top two starting pitchers remaining in free agency are Dallas Keuchel and J.A. Happ.

Both have been linked to the Blue Jays, which shouldn’t be surprising considering the need for rotation help in Toronto. Either left-hander would represent a meaningful addition for the Blue Jays, who now have Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez and Ryan Borucki penciled in atop their 2019 rotation.

When asked about Happ Wednesday at a luncheon with the Toronto chapter of the Baseball Writers Association of America, GM Ross Atkins confirmed the Blue Jays’ interest.

“I think the world of J.A. and he would be a great fit,” Atkins said. “Would love to have him back here on some level.”

The GM didn’t directly address the Keuchel rumours, but it’s hard to envision a serious pursuit of the left-hander, whose agent, Scott Boras, took a shot at the Blue Jays last month when he said they have a case of the ‘Blue Flu.’ While the Blue Jays do check in on most free agents, MLB Trade Rumours projects a four-year, $82-million deal for Keuchel.

A commitment that substantial would represent a departure from the modest expenditures the club has made under president and CEO Mark Shapiro.

The biggest of those deals was Happ’s three-year, $36-million contract, and it worked out just about as well as anyone could have hoped. He pitched to a 3.44 ERA while averaging 173 innings per season from 2016-18 — the kind of production teams dream of when they sign free-agent pitchers.

Ben Nicholson-Smith is Sportsnet’s baseball editor. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer. Together, they bring you the most in-depth Blue Jays podcast in the league, covering off all the latest news with opinion and analysis, as well as interviews with other insiders and team members.

It should be noted, though, that the first time the Blue Jays won the bidding for Happ, he was 33 and the team was mere weeks removed from an ALCS appearance. Now, he’s 36 and the Blue Jays are coming off an 89-loss season.

Even then, the interest in Happ seems sincere, and there are undoubtedly scenarios where the Blue Jays would welcome him back. A professional off of the field, Happ still projects as a three-win player in 2019 according to the Steamer projections at FanGraphs.

That projected performance is one reason why Happ could reasonably ask for at least $48 million over three years. Fellow later-blooming left-hander Rich Hill obtained that much at the same age two off-seasons ago. If teams like the Yankees, Phillies and Angels offer a third year or a higher annual salary this winter, will the rebuilding Blue Jays be motivated to match or exceed those bids? Or would they prefer to spend on lower-risk arms like the recently non-tendered Mike Fiers, a potential Blue Jays target according to MLB Network’s Jon Morosi?

It’s possible that the contending teams seeking pitching will address their needs elsewhere, potentially by trading for Noah Syndergaard or Corey Kluber. In that scenario, there could be a path where Happ returns to Toronto on a more modest deal.

But Happ’s one of the best pitchers available, so the bidding may well reach or exceed Hill’s contract. If it does, it would be a surprise to see the Blue Jays sign him. Spending big for a 36-year-old pitcher ahead of a rebuilding year just doesn’t seem like this front office’s style, no matter how well their last deal with Happ worked for all involved.

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