Free-agent lefty Zack Britton is hosting yet another workout for teams seeking bullpen help, as first reported by Mike Puma of the New York Post (via Twitter). The Mets will be in attendance, he adds. They’ll be joined by around seven other clubs, Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic adds.
It’s at least the third time that Britton has auditioned for clubs this offseason. He held a broad-reaching showcase back in January and a narrower workout for six teams almost one month ago to the day. That session — reportedly attended by the Mets, Angels, Cubs, Giants, Rangers and Dodgers — either didn’t produce the big league offer Britton is said to be seeking or didn’t produce one that he found to his liking.
The Mets’ interest in Britton will take center stage, given Edwin Diaz’s likely season-ending knee surgery and the fact that Britton, not long ago, was considered to be perhaps baseball’s best reliever — just as Diaz is now. Previously, the Mets had been focused on bullpen help that had minor league options, not wanting to limit the flexibility of their relief corps with another veteran addition. Diaz’s inevitable shift to the 60-day injured list could perhaps change that calculus.
Of course, it can’t emphasized enough that it’s been several years since Britton was in peak form. The now-35-year-old lefty had his elbow scoped in March 2021, which cost him the first two months of that season. He returned in June but quickly went down with a hamstring strain that sidelined him another few weeks. The return from that balky hamstring proved similarly short-lived, as an elbow strain again sent him to the injured list.
In Sept. 2021, Britton underwent surgery to address that second elbow issue. The hope was that, like the arthroscopic procedure in March, removing some bone spurs would alleviate the issue. Instead, surgeons determined that Britton’s ulnar collateral ligament had suffered enough damage that a Tommy John surgery was required. He missed almost all of the 2022 season but did make an improbable late-September return. However, that amounted to just three games, during which time Britton walked six of nine batters faced before going back to the injured list yet again. He averaged 92.8 mph on his fastball in that time — nowhere close to the 94.9 mph he averaged during his last healthy season in 2020 (and even further from the 96.9 mph on his sinker at its peak).
From 2014-20, Britton notched a superhuman 1.84 ERA in 367 1/3 frames. He punched out 24% of his opponents against a 9.2% walk rate in that time, and Britton’s 76.2% ground-ball rate over that period cemented him as the best ground-ball pitcher since 2002, when batted-ball data of that nature began being carefully tracked. Britton posted a laughable 80% ground-ball rate in 2016 and was at 79.1% in 2015 and 77.2% in 2019 — the three highest single-season marks ever posted by a qualified pitcher.
It stands to reason that the group of clubs watching Britton throw this time around will be different in composition. Beyond the fact that there are as many as eight teams turning up this time, each of the Angels (Matt Moore), Rangers (Will Smith) and Cubs (Michael Fulmer) have all signed relievers since that time. The Cubs were still open to adding a lefty even after signing Fulmer, so they could remain in play for Britton, but both Anaheim and Texas are less clear fits following their deals with Moore and Smith.
With just two weeks until Opening Day, it’s unlikely that Britton could sign with a team and be ready to pitch by the time the season gets underway. The extent to which he’s built up isn’t known, but given that this is his third workout for teams since January, he’s clearly been on a throwing program for some time now. Even if he’s not ready come March 30, it’s feasible that he could join a big league bullpen at some point in April, health permitting.