Zach Britton is one of baseball’s strongest relievers. There just isn’t a place for him in the Bronx and in that New York Yankees bullpen.
When the New York Yankees acquired Zach Britton from the Baltimore Orioles at the trade deadline, it looked as though the team would reach the playoffs on the back of the bullpen. The team’s relief unit wound up ranking fourth in MLB with a staff ERA of 3.38, so Britton clearly helped. He posted a 2.88 ERA in 25 games with the Yankees, setting himself up for a strong payday in free agency.
However, that payday should not come from the Yankees.
Sure, Britton did well in a Yankees uniform, and his sinking fastball gave opposing hitters fits when he was Baltimore’s closer. The sad truth is New York already had a strong bullpen when he was acquired. Someone has to go on the chopping block before the 2019 season starts.
In this case, the odd man out is Zach Britton.
A fine fit
It’s clear why the Yankees were interested in Zach Britton at the trade deadline. Not only would he add another lefty arm to a bullpen dominated by righties, but he would induce lots of ground balls. Britton’s career groundball rate (GB%) is 65.4 percent, and his mark in 2018 with Baltimore and New York was a fine 73 percent.
Britton also came relatively cheap as an upcoming free agent. New York sent three minor league pitchers to the Orioles to land Britton, with righty Dillon Tate leading the pack. Sure, the Yankees didn’t necessarily need Britton, but bullpen depth is a good thing to have. Having someone who induces a lot of grounders also helps when your team plays in the hard-hitting AL East.
Off his game
Zach Britton finished the year with a 3.10 ERA and seven saves in 41 total games. Those numbers aren’t bad, but it was clear Britton wasn’t quite at his best for parts of the season. This can be attributed to him tearing his Achilles last December, which kept him out until June. His season was overall strong, but he was definitely shaking off cobwebs from the get-go.
Per Fangraphs, the velocity on that sinking fastball dropped from 96.1 mph in 2017 to 94.9 mph this season. Britton also struggled with walks, issuing 21 in 40.2 innings. That put his BB/9 at a heavy 4.65, well above his career mark of 3.41. This is all likely because he came back from a major injury and surgery, but the numbers are still concerning. Keep in mind Britton’s BB/9 jumped to 4.34 in 2017 from 2.42 the year before. Yes, he dealt with forearm issues last year, but two years in a row of struggles with walks is not a good look.
Now, for what it’s worth, Britton already said last month he would “love to be back” with the Yankees. It may have just been lip service, but there’s something about the team now that makes players want to come to the Bronx.
The sad truth is with such a crowded bullpen, it’s just not worth it to bring back Zach Britton. He’s two months away from his 31st birthday, and the Yankees already have to decide on bringing back another setup man in David Robertson. I wrote this week exactly why he should be re-signed.
Not only that, but the Yankees have an intriguing lefty reliever in Stephen Tarpley. He came up to the main roster as part of the September expansions and posted a 3.00 ERA in 10 appearances. That was enough for him to make the postseason roster, so management surely wants to see more of what he can do. This leaves the left-handed Britton on the outside looking in.
A closer by nature
Let’s not also forget Zach Britton is a closer by nature. He has 142 career saves, of which only three came in pinstripes. Sure, the Yankees could hang onto him and Robertson in case Aroldis Chapman is injured again, but that could hamstring payroll.
The reality of the matter is there are so many teams in need of a top closer. The Boston Red Sox could lose Craig Kimbrel this winner, leaving a potential opening for Britton. Brad Boxberger struggled in September (11.37 ERA) to the point where the Arizona Diamondbacks may just non-tender him instead of taking him to arbitration one more time. Maybe the Washington Nationals could be an option depending on what management decides to do with Sean Doolittle’s club options for the next two years.
Either way, Britton has two options. He can take a pay cut to be one of the Yankees’ many setup men and chase a ring, or he can get paid and continue to build his overall value as a closer.
The verdict: Let him go
Zach Britton is excellent at what he does. He makes inducing grounders look easy. When he’s locked in and has command of his primary pitch, there’s little to no stopping him.
This is exactly why the Yankees need to let Britton walk in free agency. Between Robertson, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and others, the bullpen is just too crowded. Sure, Britton may not mind that and could be willing to take on a reduced role just to stay a Yankee. That just doesn’t make sense for him. It’s the wrong move from both a financial and professional standpoint.
Look at it this way. Britton has to decide if he wants to be a small fish in a big pond or vice versa. Sure, the Yankees give him the opportunity to win, but he won’t have the same spotlight he would as a closer. Is he seriously going to turn down a lucrative multiyear deal just for the sake of chasing a ring? This writer certainly doesn’t think so.
Thus, unless Brian Cashman suddenly decides to trade Chapman, it’s hard to imagine Zach Britton will be a Yankee again in 2019.