TAMPA — J.A. Happ stood in his front of his locker at Steinbrenner Field on Friday following an offseason of uncertainty, when it looked for much of it the left-hander would be shipped out of The Bronx following the signing of Gerrit Cole.
“It’s good to be back,’’ Happ said. “Should I be surprised that I’m back? You guys [in the media] had a different opinion this offseason, didn’t you? It does feel good.”
But Happ admitted he had questions about his future after the Yankees inked Cole to a record nine-year, $324 million deal in December. The two played together in Pittsburgh for the second half of 2015, when Cole was in his third year in the majors and Happ was acquired in a trade from Seattle.
“I sent him a message right away saying, ‘I hope we’ll be teammates again,’’’ Happ said. “Obviously, congratulations to him and we’re excited to have him. Anybody would be excited to have a guy like that on your staff. We’re here now. Hopefully, we move forward from that talk.”
General manager Brian Cashman has said the Yankees took calls on Happ earlier in the offseason, before ultimately deciding to keep the 37-year-old southpaw in part because James Paxton’s back injury flared up in November. That ailment led to Paxton undergoing surgery this month that will sideline him at least until May.
Happ added that he did talk to the Yankees during the offseason to gauge his status.
“I understand that’s kind of the nature of the business,’’ Happ said of the trade rumors. “But I’m certainly happy I’m here.’’
Now that he is still in The Bronx, both Happ and the Yankees are looking for better results than he produced in 2019, his first full season as a Yankee.
Happ allowed a career-high 34 homers and had a 4.91 ERA, his worst mark in nearly a decade. He seemed particularly impacted by the short porch in right field at Yankee Stadium, as well as the changes in the baseball used last year that led to less drag — and more home runs — as indicated in a report released in December.
“I don’t like to make excuses, so I think any answer other than ‘I need to be better’ is not the right answer,’’ Happ said of the evidence that the construction of the balls used in 2019 helped lead to the record-setting number of home runs hit in the majors. “And I do need to be better and I plan on being better.’’
Aaron Boone expects that to be the case, pointing to Happ’s track record, as well as the Yankees’ belief that he wasn’t as bad as his numbers indicated.
“The results weren’t as good as we feel he threw the ball last year,’’ the manager said. “A number of times he was pitching really well and maybe a long ball got him and wrecked the outing. He threw the ball well down the stretch for us and even in the playoffs. … I fully expect him to be the J.A. Happ we’ve seen most of his career.”
Happ worked on his mechanics, but doesn’t plan to completely alter his approach.
“I plan to try to adjust a little bit of my repertoire the best I [can] to try to go forward,’’ Happ said of adapting to a ball more prone to be hit for homers. “Also, my strengths are my strengths, so I’m trying to mold both of those to make it work as best we can.”
He spent the offseason tinkering with his offspeed pitches and his mechanics. Happ finished last season strong with a 1.65 ERA over his final five appearances — including four starts, covering 27 1/3 innings. Still, he was bumped from the postseason rotation and is due to make $17 million this season with a vesting option for another $17 million in 2021.
Happ also pitched with tendinitis near his left shoulder late last year and strengthened the area over the winter. He also started throwing earlier in the offseason than he typically does.
“I got a lot more live batting practice in to try to see in real time if some of the stuff I was working on was gonna be beneficial or not and at least get some early views on it,’’ Happ said. “That’s still in the works.”
And for the foreseeable future, he’ll have a chance to bounce back while with the Yankees.
“I’m excited to be back,’’ Happ said. “This is the place I’d like to be, for sure.”