The J.A. Happening

You don’t like J.A. Happ. There are any number of reasons why you don’t like him. He’s a 32-year-old journeyman starting pitcher. His statistics are as mediocre as they come. Physically, he’s as unintimidating as a six-foot-five-inch human being can be. He only weighs 205 pounds for Christ’s sake. Eat a burger, Happ. Stop making the rest of us fat asses feel bad. And then there’s his head shot. I mean, just look at the guy:

happ

Remove the cap and that could be anybody. That could be your doctor, your accountant, your lawyer, the guy taking your order at Applebee’s, a serial bank robber, a high school math teacher, a U.S. senator, a creepy dude with seven or eight cats, your next-door neighbor, a soccer dad driving a Ford Windstar, and the list goes on.

The problem with J.A. Happ is he’s too much like the rest of us to make anyone feel good about their favorite baseball team acquiring his services. No diehard Seattle fan wants the Mariners to pick up an average J.A. We want an electrifying talent of epic proportions, one who inspires confidence with a single look, who makes women melt into their yoga pants and men raise their beers in triumphant approval. J.A. Happ is not that at all. And you absolutely hate it.

To make matters worse, the M’s acquired Happ for arguably the most scintillating underperformer on their entire roster, Michael Saunders. No one made a career .231 batting average ooze with sex appeal quite like Saunders. Plus, unlike Happ, Saunders looked the part. Tall and lean, but muscular nonetheless, Saunders was nothing short of the prototype for a major league outfielder. He was speedy enough to track down wayward fly balls, quick enough to steal a base, yet still strong enough to drive a slider into the gap for extra bases. Based solely on the look test, the 28-year-old Canadian was everything a ballclub could want in a player.

But naturally, there were flaws, as there always are.

Saunders was plagued by an inability to stay healthy, finding himself on the disabled list multiple times throughout his six-year career. And beyond just getting injured, it was the way in which he accrued physical maladies that raised eyebrows. A twisted ankle here, a pulled oblique there — and on a check-swing, no less. To your typical fan, these bouts with temporary handicap weren’t enough to dissuade the masses from losing faith in Saunders. Internally, however, that’s exactly what happened within the organization.

Manager Lloyd McClendon didn’t like Saunders, and it was evident. McClendon limited Saunders’ playing time and didn’t particularly appreciate the fact that an otherwise talented outfielder was found pulling up lame on a semi-frequent basis.

The growing disdain spread beyond the team’s skipper, as well. General Manager Jack Zduriencik was rumored to be less than enamored with Saunders’ decision to hire a personal hitting coach from outside the organization during the 2013-2014 offseason. The Mariners, like any major league club, provide a myriad of hitting resources for players to utilize, and the fact that a key contributor chose to look elsewhere for help was twitch-inducing, if nothing else.

As time went on, the combined forces of irritation and injury spelled Saunders’ demise. By the end of the 2014 campaign, seemingly everyone — including most MLB executives — knew that the man nicknamed “The Condor” was not long for Seattle.

Blatantly shopping Saunders mitigated whatever trade value he could have possessed. That the Mariners chose to mitigate Saunders’ value indicates two things: 1) They were desperate to end their relationship with him, and 2) his value before hitting the trade block was less than substantial. The latter point is important because, in reality, a .231 career hitter in his sixth major league season doesn’t carry a ton of value to begin with, though many Mariners fans felt otherwise.

The attachment to Saunders from those amongst the fan base is explainable, not unlike the way a peculiar attachment to, say, a fringe big league talent like Casper Wells is also explainable. Seattle sports fans love to hitch their proverbial wagons to average-to-below-average producers — Munenori Kawasaki, Moochie Norris, Charlie Whitehurst for a short time, etc. — who show little in the way of redeeming value outside of star-crossed circumstance (in the case of a high-profile backup like Whitehurst) or the all-important heart. God, we do love heart around here. If a heavily-incentivized millionaire can simply scrap and claw his way into a jockstrap, we’ll embrace him as if he were our own offspring. We’re saps for gritty try-hards, and damn anyone who can’t see it our way.

Saunders wasn’t especially hearty, but he was undeniably talented. His potential was limitless — back when he was a 22-year-old rookie. In the six seasons that ultimately transpired, Saunders became less of a prospect and more of an average Joe. He never could turn the corner that everyone hoped he would round. And while his .271 average in 2014 was the best mark of his career, he maintained that number over just 78 games and 263 plate appearances. Compare that to the results of two seasons prior (139 games and 553 plate appearances in 2012, yielding a .247 average; 132 games and 468 plate appearances in 2013, resulting in a .236 average) and a host of questions arise.

Pawning Saunders off for a fraction of his perceived value obviously didn’t sit well with fans. Receiving the unassuming Happ in return only furthered issues.

But don’t blame Happ for this mess. While the eight-year veteran hasn’t exactly excelled throughout his big league tenure, he’s not quite chopped liver, either.

A perennial utility starter (he can anchor the back-end of a rotation or swing to the bullpen), Happ has neither been great nor terrible while logging innings in three horrendous venues for pitchers: Philadelphia, Houston, and Toronto. Relocating to Safeco Field should hack a few percentage points off the southpaw’s metrics, and a Chris Young-like emergence in 2014 wouldn’t be out of the question.

More importantly, though, Happ is as plucky as they come. His most notable career achievement, to date, is returning to the mound after getting drilled in the cranium by a line drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings in 2013. If that’s not honest to goodness grit, I don’t know what is. And what have we learned about Seattle sports fans above all else? Seattle sports fans love them some intrepid spirits.

Happ may not be the answer to one’s prayers, but let’s not confuse ourselves: Saunders wasn’t that, either. The love affair with an okay-not-great outfielder is so very Seattle of us. Saunders isn’t earthquake-stricken Haiti. He isn’t typhoon-riddled Japan. We don’t need to pray for Saunders or create a Twitter hashtag in his memory. He’s gone, and all parties involved will be just fine. The Mariners will be fine. The Blue Jays will be fine. The rest of baseball couldn’t give two shits. We’re talking about Michael Saunders here. Not Mike Trout. Not Andrew McCutchen. Not Adam Jones (okay, we won’t go there). Michael Effing Saunders. Everybody move the hell on. EVERYTHING IS GOING TO BE OKAY.

The J.A. Happ era is among us. Happ will be just as valuable to this ballclub as Saunders once was, if not moreso. And yet, perhaps, twice as resilient. Hooray for resilience.

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