This is probably the best way to describe my relationship with J.A. Happ.
When Happ was acquired last July in a 10-player swap with the Houston Astros, I kept deluding myself into thinking we'd acquired the 2008 iteration of the southpaw rather than the contemporary version. Over the past three seasons, Happ, who was aggressively pursued by Alex Anthopoulos as he endeavoured to trade Roy Halladay, has in no way resembled the Philadelphia incarnation of himself -- the guy who worked a 3.05 ERA over 43 appearances (27 starts) for the Phillies between 2008 and 2009.
His career in Houston started off rather auspiciously -- he posted a 3.75 ERA in 13 starts for the Astros following a mid-season trade in 2010 -- but his hitability and homerun rates soared when 2011 came around, and Happ has yet to justify my lingering perception of him as a serviceable starter.
But despite the disastrous turn his career took in the Lone Star state, Happ took to vindicating me (and the handful of other J.A. enthusiasts) when he arrived north of the border last season.
In 10 starts for Toronto, Happ fashioned a 4.69 ERA that belied an impressive 2.80 FIP. Though he threw just 40.1 inning as a Blue Jay, he accrued a greater fWAR (1.1) than Ricky Romero, Henderson Alvarez, and Carlos Villanueva, all of whom threw more than 125 innings. And he did it all despite surrendering the highest BABIP (.315) of his career.
The sexy FIP suggests Happ was unlucky during his brief stint with Toronto, and his ERA was likely inflated by poor defense. This is entirely plausible when we look at who surrounded him, including Rajai Davis (-6.8 UZR) and the pylonic Kelly Johnson (-6.9 UZR).
In his first tour around the American League -- albeit, an abbreviated one -- Happ flashed swing-and-miss stuff with unprecedented regularity, at a clip of %12.2; while his sample was considerably smaller, that figure is more than three per cent higher than Brandon Morrow's in 2012.
Of course, there is something to be said for the fact that pitchers typically have an advantage over hitters in their first confrontation. Russell Carleton, now of Baseball Prospectus, was actually able to quantify the advantage, determining that "in the first meeting ... the pitcher had a 7 point advantage in OBP" and "by the time of the second meeting, that advantage was almost entirely gone (down to 1.5 points)." So it's reasonable to presume that Happ encounters a little more adversity as AL teams become more familiar with his repertoire, but even still, he probably represents a better option than the low-tier arms available on the free agent market.
For the sake of this argument, we'll consider any free agent who made at least 20 starts in 2012 -- I doubt the Blue Jays opt for a true reclamation project to fill the final rotation spot -- and isn't one of the pitchers who will command a multi-year deal. This excludes the likes of Zack Greinke, Brandon McCarthy, Dan Haren, Ryan Dempster, Anibal Sanchez, Shaun Marcum, Kyle Lohse, and Anibal Sanchez.
So who's left to compete with Happ for the fifth rotation spot? In alphabetical order...
Erik Bedard (34) - Compiled an 5.01 ERA over 24 starts with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2012, with a FIP that didn't trail too far behind at 4.07. Bedard hasn't made more than 24 starts in a season since 2007, and has had two shoulder surgeries in the past four years. Oh yeah, and he's a Tommy John survivor. While he'd likely come cheap, when considering both performance and durability, he inspires about as much confidence as Eric Thames in left field.
Joe Blanton (32) - Despite an underwhelming fastball that sits around 89-90 mph, Blanton has a deep arsenal and good command, averaging 1.9 BB/9 since 2010. But that's about it. His propensity for surrendering homeruns isn't encouraging -- his 1.37 HR/9 in 2012 ranked 11th-worst among qualified pitchers -- nor is his 23.4% line-drive rate, ninth-worst in baseball. But his DL history is merely a fraction of Bedard's; he stays healthy and guiled his way to 2.4 fWAR last season. He could conceivably work out of the bullpen and serve as a contingency No. 5 should Happ falter.
Kevin Correia (32) - Just about the only thing Kevin Correia does well is induce ground balls; his 51.2 GB% in 2012 ranked eighth in the National League. But look at his appalling strikeout numbers -- 4.6 K/9 over the past two seasons and a microscopic swing-and-miss rate -- and his good control, Correia seems like an older, more tired version of Henderson Alvarez. Since 2010, Correia has been worth 0.9 fWAR. Yeesh.
Scott Feldman (29) - Feldman is coming off a rough 2012 in which he found himself parading back and forth from rotation to bullpen. As a starter, he compiled a record of 5-11 with an 5.48 ERA and 1.44 WHIP over 21 outings. But his 3.88 FIP and relatively high BABIP suggest he was a tad unlucky last season. At only 29 years old, Feldman could be a decent option if the price is right.
Jeff Francis (32) - Since 2008, Francis had whittled an ERA below five in just one season. That was back in 2011, his lone season not pitching half his games in the hitter's haven that is Coors Field. Nevertheless, Francis has been worth 4.4 fWAR over the past two season, despite the mitigating impact of the Mile High altitude last year. His HR/9 and BABIP will surely regress towards the mean outside of Colorado, and his low strikeout rates notwithstanding, Francis is an okay option for the No. 5 spot.
Francisco Liriano (29) - One of the more intriguing (read: exasperating) options on the free agent market, Liriano's stuff and pedigree have been lauded to death. Unfortunately, there's been a massive disconnect between his reputation and his performance over the past two years. His consistently high strikeouts rates are sexy -- 9.0 K/9 over the past three seasons -- but his command has been downright deplorable for the past two years, at 5.0 BB/9. He can also usually be relied on for at least one DL stint per season. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for electric stuff, and his fastball-slider combination certainly fits that description. I wouldn't mind giving him an audition, for the right price.
Derek Lowe (40) - 2012 marked the first season since 2002 that Lowe didn't make at least 32 starts. There's a simple explanation for that: he's kinda bad. His 1.1 fWAR last year marked the lowest score of his career, and his 3.47 K/9 is absolutely laughable. And he's 40. And, from what I've heard/read, kind of a jerk. Pass.
Jason Marquis (34) - Yeah, he's a seasoned ground-ball specialist, but like Correia, that's about all he's got going for him. His 1.62 HR/9 last year ranked sixth-worst among pitchers with at least 120 innings, and, when coupled with mediocre command (3.43 career BB/9), it makes for a dangerous combination. Since 2010, he's only been better than the average replacement-level player once.
Kevin Millwood (38) - The well-traveled righty was worth 2.0 fWAR last season, but don't let that fool you. Pitching in the cavernous Safeco Field, Millwood fashioned his lowest home-run rate since 2002, a factor which surely contributed to his rather surprising success. He can induce ground balls pretty well, and he's got alright command, but there's literally not a single thing about Millwood that I can use a really positive adjective for.
Joe Saunders (32) - If you're a fan of poo-throwing lefties -- and, presumably, you are now that Mark Buehrle's a Blue Jay -- Saunders is the guy for you. He'll eat innings and wow you with precisely nothing. He doesn't really strike guys out, he throws a ton of strikes, and he'll give up his fair share of homeruns. But he's made at least 28 starts every year since 2008 and has never had his ERA eclipse 4.60 over that span. In fact, he's managed two years of a sub-3.70 ERA out of his last five. He could work, but I suspect someone desperate will give him a multi-year deal.
Randy Wolf (36) - Break out the Duran Duran references. Wolf is another soft-throwing southpaw who has made a career out of staying healthy and throwing strikes. That being said, he's 36 years old and coming off the worst year of his career, in which he fashioned a 5.65 ERA over 30 appearances (26 starts). I wouldn't touch his climbing homerun rates or 68 mph curveball with a ten-foot clown pole.
Chris Young (34) - A righty who throws like a lefty, Young's fastball has averaged under 85 mph for the past three seasons. While his 2.82 BB/9 represents his lowest mark since 2005, his astronomic fly ball rate won't play well at the hitter-friendly Skydome. Considering his age and injury history, Young doesn't really seem like a viable option.
Carlos Zambrano (32) - RAWR! CARLOS ZAMBRANO! MLB's preeminent emotional volcano has made a reputation based more on his Incredible Hulk-like implosions than performance. Once a respectable cog in the Cubs rotation, Zambrano's taken a step backward the past couple seasons, and was relegated to the bullpen in 2012. Since 2011, he's compiled an 4.66 ERA with an abysmal 1.47 WHIP. Considering the way he's trending and his volatility, I'll pass.
Not included in this list: Dallas Braden, Freddy Garcia, Rich Harden (please, no), Roberto Hernandez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Dustin Moseley, Roy Oswalt, Carl Pavano, Andy Pettitte, Jonathan Sanchez, Tim Stauffer, Carlos Villanueva, Chien-Ming Wang, Kip Wells, Randy Wells.
Look, some of these guys might have more success in 2013 than Happ, but I'm far too attached to my pre-enlightenment 2008-2009 conception of J.A. to give up on him now.