The Mets are among the teams that have some interest in free-agent lefty Zack Britton, tweets Jon Heyman of the New York Post. Britton, of course, is plenty familiar with Mets skipper Buck Showalter from the pair’s days in Baltimore, and recently hired bullpen coach Dom Chiti was Britton’s bullpen coach for three years with the Orioles as well.
Britton would give the Mets at least two clear left-handers in the ’pen, joining trade acquisition Brooks Raley as a southpaw who’s seemingly guaranteed a spot. Displaced starter David Peterson could vie for a bullpen gig himself, though perhaps the Mets would prefer to keep him stretched out in the event that they need to tap into their minor league depth. Peterson does have a pair of minor league option years remaining. The Mets also have both Joey Lucchesi (returning this year from Tommy John surgery) and Tayler Saucedo as left-handed bullpen options on the 40-man roster.
The 35-year-old Britton has seen his star dim in recent seasons, due primarily to injuries. Britton underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip from his elbow in March 2021 — a procedure that sidelined him for the season’s first two months. He returned in June but pitched only briefly before a hamstring strain sent him back to the injured list. Britton’s return from that injury proved short-lived as well. He was put back on the IL with an elbow strain and went back under the knife for a second procedure to remove chips from his elbow Sept. 2021.
It was announced prior to the surgery that doctors would also be examining potential damage to his ulnar collateral ligament during the procedure. That ominous update was indeed a portent for a more severe injury, as the operation revealed that Britton required a reconstruction of said ligament; a Tommy John procedure wound up being performed as well.
Britton made a fairly improbable comeback when he was activated from the injured list in late September. However, he appeared in just three games with the Yankees and walked six of the nine men he faced before returning to the IL with what the team called shoulder fatigue. Britton’s 92.8 mph average sinker in those three appearances was nowhere close to either the 96.9 mph he averaged at his peak or the 94.9 mph he averaged during his last healthy season in 2020.
Given that recent run of health woes, Britton clearly comes with a good bit of injury risk. Due to the pair of surgeries and the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign, he’s totaled just 38 innings since the conclusion of the 2019 season. Britton, to his credit, was excellent in 2020. However, he’s been rocked for a 6.16 ERA with more walks (20) than strikeouts (17) in 19 innings across the past two seasons.
Of course, at his peak, Britton was one of the game’s very best relievers. From 2014-20, the flamethrowing sinker specialist pitched to a combined 1.84 ERA in 367 1/3 innings with a 24% strikeout rate, a 9.2% walk rate and a 76.2% ground-ball rate that established him as the best ground-ball pitcher since batted-ball data began being tracked in 2002. Britton’s ground-ball rates in 2016 (80%), 2015 (79.1%) and 2019 (77.2%) are the three highest single-season marks from a qualified pitcher that have ever been tracked. Unsurprisingly, he suppressed home runs at an elite rate, averaging just 0.37 long balls per nine innings pitched during his seven-year peak.
Certainly, the Mets or any other team signing Britton will be hoping for a reliever closer to those levels than the ugly results he turned in during his injury-ruined 2021-22 seasons. It’s not realistic to expect Britton will return to his juggernaut 2015-16 form, but a healthy Britton is quite obviously still a talented, potential late-game option.
It’s at least worth noting that Heyman’s colleague, Mike Puma, tweets that although the Mets indeed have interest in Britton, it’s also possible their recent frustration following the Carlos Correa saga could impact any potential talks. Both Correa and Britton are represented by the Boras Corporation. Given the number of top-level free agents Boras represents each winter and the Mets’ penchant for chasing big-name stars, it’s overwhelmingly unlikely that the Mets would swear off dealing with the Boras Corporation entirely. That said, with the sting of that saga still fresh for all parties, some short-term frustration is feasible enough.