2:45pm: Fancred’s Jon Heyman tweets that the Yankees “seem focused” on Britton in their pursuit of bullpen upgrades, though he adds that the lefty is “believed” to have multiple offers in hand.
2:08pm: Today’s agreement between the Phillies and David Robertson could accelerate the market for lefty Zach Britton, as ESPN’s Jeff Passan tweets that Britton “looks like the next reliever to go.” Britton was a known target of the Phillies before they signed Robertson and of the Cardinals before they signed Andrew Miller, and Passan adds that Britton has “been in discussions” with the Yankees recently. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark tweeted this morning, too, that the Yankees are “heavily focused” on the bullpen market at the moment and listed Britton as a target.
As with any free agent, the asking price is a key, however, and Stark tweets that Britton and agent Scott Boras have been holding out for a four-year guarantee. That’s a huge ask for any reliever but particularly for one with Britton’s recent track record. Though there was a strong argument to be made that as recently as 2016, Britton was baseball’s premier reliever, the past two seasons have been decidedly less successful. Britton missed significant time in 2017 due to forearm issues and missed the first half of the 2018 campaign while recovering from surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered in offseason workouts.
Because of those injuries, Britton has been limited to just 78 innings across the past two seasons and has had decidedly mixed results along the way. He’s registered a sharp 3.00 ERA in that time but also had diminished strikeout and walk numbers (7.3 K/9, 4.5 BB/9). Britton’s swinging-strike rate is down nearly five percent from its 17.2 percent peak in 2016, and his chase rate on pitches outside the strike zone has plummeted from a career-high 38.7 percent in 2015 to 29.5 percent last season. Velocity, too, has served as a red flag. Though Britton’s infamous sinker gained some speed as the 2018 season wore on and he distanced himself from that Achilles surgery, even his end-of-season velocity was well south of the 97.1 mph he averaged on his sinker in 2016.
None of that is to say that Britton is no longer a quality bullpen option. Even with diminished results, he’s still elite in terms of inducing ground-balls, limiting hard contact and avoiding the long ball. Given that he only just turned 31, it’s certainly plausible that a full offseason of rest and regular workouts could allow Britton to return to the pre-injury form he displayed from 2014-16 when he posted an unthinkable 1.38 ERA with a nearly 80 percent ground-ball rate, better than a strikeout per inning (9.3 K/9) and strong control (2.4 BB/9) through a span of 209 innings.
In that sense, Britton possesses a higher ceiling than any available reliever. However, his two most recent seasons should create some real cause for concern. Relievers with red flags can certainly still get paid — Miller secured a $25MM guarantee over two years from the Cardinals on the heels of an injury-marred season of his own — but a four-year pact would be a particularly strong outcome for a pitcher whose recent performance simply hasn’t aligned with his name value.