J.A. Happ was never meant to be a Phillie


Mar 25, 2014; Bradenton, FL, USA; Toronto Blue Jays

J.A. Happ

(48) throws a pitch in the second inning of the spring training exhibition game against the Pittsburgh Pirates at McKechnie Field. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Philadelphia Phillies can boast to have rostered the 2009 Sporting News National League Rookie of the Year. With a deep sigh, the front office can admit that in 16 months they traded that same Rookie of the Year for an aging veteran in Roy Oswalt. Oswalt is now out of baseball and the 2009 ROY is chugging along as a serviceable arm in Major League Baseball.

There is no questioning the Phillies thinking at the time. The organization was all in and fans loved it. They were coming in nearly two years removed from their first World Series victory since 1980. With a roster endowed with all-star caliber talent, a veteran arm like Oswalt would help push the Phillies to the organization’s third championship since its inception.

History tells us another story. The postseason proved to be a different beast than the regular season. The Phillies would fall on their face and disappoint to a level that would leave all the bandwagon jumpers dumping their Phillies gear in the trash cans at the Broad Street Terminal. Meanwhile, the forgotten sensation that paralyzed hitters in his rookie season has been all but forgotten.

Enter J.A. Happ.

After one appearance in 2007 and several brief presentations the following year, Happ was called upon in 2009 to replace the struggling Chan Ho Park in the starting rotation. Happ’s first start would come on May 23 in the South Bronx versus the vaunted New York Yankees. A Robinson Cano sacrifice which scored Nick Swisher and Derek Jeter home run is all the lefty would allow in six innings pitched. All told, Happ allowed two runs on four hits while striking out four.

While Brad Lidge would enter the ninth inning and blow the game for Happ and the Phillies, the lefty’s debut as an everyday starting pitcher was impressive to say the least. He walked into Yankee Stadium to square off against the team the Phillies would face in the World Series months later, only to take a no decision. Regardless, Happ was decisive. He made skipper Charlie Manuel forget all about Park as the lefty went on to make 23 more starts that season.

The icing on the cake would come on June 27. Against the Toronto Blue Jays, Happ would throw his first complete game shutout of his young career.

Happ would finish his rookie campaign with a win-loss total of 12-4 and a 2.93 ERA. While his strikeout rate wasn’t anywhere near the like’s of Cole Hamels or Cliff Lee, Happ did more than enough to give the raucous Philly fans something to cheer for. He was a gritty young pitcher of the blue-collar type. He didn’t have great stuff but he was a winner. Happ epitomized what the city of Philadelphia represented.

2010 was a different story. After two starts where he allowed zero earned runs in 10.1 innings pitched, Happ was sent to the disabled list. He would return on July 25. Four days later, Happ was traded to the Houston Astros in the deal which brought Oswalt to Philly. Happ was never the same.

From July 29, 2010 on, Happ’s career has splintered. While he has had some good outings here or there, from Houston to Toronto, Happ has pretty much floundered to the point where he is a spot starter on occasion. He is often swapping out his Triple-A uni for his MLB gear.

On the surface, it seems as if the Phillies traded Happ as high as they could. The return for Happ, at the time, was the largest they could have possibly received. The Phillies would go on to win 97 games, the most in their franchise history since losing the World Series in 1993. Ironically, the Phillies 97-win season would mean nothing as the Phillies would lose to the Yankees in the World Series later that fall.

Then again, one has to wonder what would have happened to his career had the lefty remained in Philadelphia. Would he have grown into a serviceable middle-of-the-rotation arm, providing an upgrade over Kyle Kendrick? Or would have his downturn continued regardless, relegating him to boo’s and hoots from the same fans that cheered their hearts out for him in 2009?

Nobody will ever know. When J.A. Happ takes the mound for the Toronto Blue Jays later tonight in Philadelphia, we can only wonder what could have been.

At the end of the day though, it was never meant to be.