When the Yankees pursue a player through free agency or a trade, they have many ways to assess him. They can lean on their scouts, data analysts, training and medical staff members, and former teammates and coaches, allowing them to draw a detailed portrait of the player they would be acquiring.
But there is one question the Yankees can rarely answer ahead of time: How will he acclimate to New York?
If that question no longer applies to a blustery owner, it still revolves around a tempestuous fan base that largely holds its newcomers — particularly the steeply compensated or heavily publicized — to a high standard.
It’s as if everyone asks: Well, if you can’t cope with some boos, how are you going to handle the Red Sox?
So, with the Yankees ready to move Sonny Gray, a former All-Star pitcher who flopped in the Bronx, re-signing left-hander J.A. Happ to a two-year, $34 million contract, with a vesting option for a third year, was a particularly attractive proposition.
In a cameo for the Yankees at the end of last season, Happ, 36, rarely gave the faithful reason to voice their displeasure. When he was acquired from Toronto in late July, Happ helped stabilize a rotation that had recently lost Jordan Montgomery to Tommy John surgery and that had an ace, Luis Severino, who was beginning a second-half unraveling.
Though the Yankees could not chase down the Red Sox in the American League East, it was through no fault of Happ’s. He was 7-0 with a 2.69 earned run average over 11 regular-season starts. Six times he allowed one run or less.
The only disappointment — other than missing a start with hand, foot and mouth disease — came at an inopportune moment: He was knocked around by the Red Sox in the opening game of the division series, which Boston won in four games.
Happ, who gave up a three-run homer in the first inning to J.D. Martinez, was lifted in the third instead of being allowed to face him again. Happ allowed five runs — two of which scored against reliever Chad Green — in an eventual 5-4 defeat.
When asked in a conference call with reporters on Thursday about the belief of some fans that his playoff appearance was more representative of what the Yankees were getting than the pitcher they saw over the final two-plus months of the regular season, Happ laughed.
“I think the body of work, maybe, is more important than one game,” Happ said. “Or maybe not important, but the body of work is maybe more indicative of the player you are. I certainly don’t mean to downplay the importance of a playoff game.”
He added: “You go back and look at it, and J.D. Martinez hit a pitch that not a lot of guys hit. And he beat me on that pitch, and that’s all I can really say about that. I’m not really here to defend myself. I feel like my work stands for itself.”
The Yankees’ off-season plans have thus far unfolded along the lines that General Manager Brian Cashman laid out at the winter meetings in Las Vegas. He said then that he was loath to make a deal that, if it turned sour, could hamstring the Yankees financially for years.
So, rather than lay out a six-year deal for Patrick Corbin, the Yankees have bolstered their starting rotation by acquiring left-hander James Paxton, who is often injured but is under contract for only two more seasons, and by re-signing Happ. He described the third-year option — which will vest if he makes 27 starts or pitches 165 innings in 2020 — as a bet on himself. He has reached those benchmarks three of the last four years.
With the rotation settled, Cashman is now turning his attention to the bullpen, which has lost Zach Britton and David Robertson to free agency, and to finding a middle infield replacement for shortstop Didi Gregorius, who is expected to miss three to five months after undergoing Tommy John surgery.
To that end, the Yankees entertained the free agent Manny Machado on Wednesday, meeting with him at Yankee Stadium and then having dinner with him in Manhattan.
It is unclear, though, how far the Yankees’ interest in Machado extends.
Machado, who could replace Gregorius at short, then shift to third upon his return, is a premier talent and only 26. But his record of churlish behavior, which took center stage with the Los Angeles Dodgers during the playoffs this season, has left him with only three known suitors: the Chicago White Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Yankees. He met with Chicago on Monday and Philadelphia on Thursday.
Machado grew up in Miami admiring Alex Rodriguez and wearing No. 13, Rodriguez’s number with the Yankees. Machado has often indicated a fondness for the Yankees, but it remains to be seen whether the team would commit to the type of deal that he is surely seeking — something near 10 years and $300 million — for a player with character issues.
There are no such questions about Happ. He provides a reliable presence in a rotation that, with the addition of Paxton and the return of Masahiro Tanaka, C.C. Sabathia and Severino, gives the team the opportunity to be competitive daily.
Happ, who drew widespread interest, said he liked the Yankees’ clubhouse atmosphere, from the veteran leadership to the young players “who are playing the game the right way and putting in the work.”
“It was a big reason why I felt comfortable going back,” he added. “Really, at this point in my career, I’d taken a lot of things into account, but really the chance to win was high on that list. I feel like this was a place that you come to the ballpark to win every day, and I really appreciated that.”