Breaking Down the J.A. Happ for Michael Saunders Trade

Toronto got the outfielder they needed and opened a rotation spot for a youngster, while the Mariners gained a surplus of starters, perhaps ahead of a bigger trade.

The Seattle Mariners added some starting pitching depth, and the Toronto Blue Jays welcomed a native son back to the Great White North in a one-for-one-trade, as Seattle shipped Michael Saunders to Toronto in exchange for J.A. Happ.

What does this swap mean for both squads? Let's dig into the numbers and find out.

Why Toronto Needed Saunders

To say the Blue Jays are thin on outfielders would be an understatement.

Toronto shipped Anthony Gose to Detroit earlier this off-season, and last season’s left fielder, Melky Cabrera, is a free agent with a steep asking price. Kevin Pillar’s .304 wOBA and 91 weighted runs created plus were slated to start in left field until Saunders’ acquisition. The British Columbia native is under Toronto control until 2017, and his .346 wOBA and 126 wRC+ are upgrades over Pillar.

Saunders joins slugger Jose Bautista and prospect Dalton Pompey (.861 OPS in 500 minor league plate appearances last season) in Toronto’s outfield.

Why Seattle Could Trade Saunders

James Jones got playing time in the outfield for the Mariners last season and struggled offensively, posting a .262 wOBA and 68 wRC+, worse than Saunders’s marks. However, Jones is a menace on the base paths (27 stolen bases compared to Saunders’ 4 stolen bases) and is under team control until 2021.

Saunders does seem expendable compared to left fielder Dustin Ackley. The former first-round pick out of North Carolina is under team control until 2018. Although he contributed a .305 wOBA and 97 wRC+ last season (worse than Saunders’s marks), Ackley’s career numbers are comparable to Saunders’. (Both have 92 wRC+, and Saunders’ .302 career wOBA is slightly better than Ackley’s .299.) There’s not a huge drop-off in left field from Saunders to Ackley, and it seemed like Ackley was going to play anyway. On the bench, Seattle considers seven years of James Jones more valuable than three years of Saunders, even if Saunders is the better player now.

Why Seattle Needed Happ

Perhaps the Mariners aren’t done wheeling and dealing. Especially after dealing Saunders, right field is not Seattle’s strong suit. However, acquiring Happ gives the Mariners the flexibility to trade another starting pitcher in exchange for another outfielder, maybe one who is better offensively than Saunders.

Happ is not a bad starting pitcher himself and compares to current Mariner starter Roenis Elias. Both are lefties, Happ’s ERA+ of 93 is just worse than Elias’ ERA+ of 95, and Happ’s 4.26 FIP in 2014 was slightly higher than Elias’ 4.03 FIP. Elias pitched 163 innings; Happ threw 158. Happ’s 2.61 strikeout to walk ratio is slightly better than Elias’ 2.23 clip, and his 1.4 wins above replacement bested Elias’ 1 WAR. Elias is younger, and under team control until 2020, while Happ is under Mariner control through 2016.

However, if the Mariners traded Elias, Happ would be an adequate replacement. Perhaps the Atlanta Braves, who dealt free-agent to be Jason Heyward to St. Louis in exchange for Shelby Miller but signed Nick Markakis to replace Heyward, might be interested in a deal centered around Elias and Justin Upton?

Even if the Mariners keep Elias, Happ provides flexibility in case another starter is dealt or in case of injury (several Mariner hurlers went down last season).

Why Toronto Could Trade Happ

He’s only under team control through the end of the season, so exchanging his expiring contract for longer-term control of an outfielder is not a bad idea. The Blue Jays feel confident in the front four of their rotation going forward, which consist of wily veterans R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and breakout youngsters Marcus Stroman and Drew Hutchison.

Toronto feels better about their ability to acquire a veteran starter than signing an outfield bat, as Melky Cabrera’s price appears to be through the roof and the hitter market is moving quickly this off-season. Even if the Blue Jays don’t land a veteran starter, the team has a couple live arms in the minors who could audition for the role. Righty Aaron Sanchez dominated out of the Blue Jay bullpen at the end of last season, posting a 2.80 FIP and a 0.70 WHIP in 33 innings. Sanchez struggled with his control as a AA and AAA starter last season (his 1.47 strikeout to walk ratio shows that), but he’s the team’s number-two prospect and deserves to audition for the fifth starter role.

Lefty Daniel Norris tore up the minors last season and is the team’s top-ranked prospect. The 21-year-old Tennessee high school prospect struck out 163 batters in 124.2 innings, posting a 1.025 WHIP and a 4.22 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Trading Happ might even make sense in terms of opening a rotation spot for Norris, and getting Saunders back is a bonus.

Toronto filled a huge void in its lineup by acquiring a solid lefty outfielder and opened a rotation spot for a flame-throwing prospect. Seattle solved its lefty outfielder logjam and acquired another starter, which gives the Mariners the flexibility to trade for another bat.