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Yankees Potential Free Agent Target: Zach Britton

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Zach Britton showed glimpses of his dominant form in pinstripes. Should the Yankees want him back?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

The first big move the Yankees made during the 2018 season was the acquisition of Zach Britton. Sitting a few games back of the Red Sox and looking to gear up for the stretch run, the Yankees kicked off their trade deadline shopping by bringing in the 30-year-old left-hander to supplement an already great bullpen.

Britton had returned from an Achilles injury in June, and appeared to be rounding into form after some initial struggles. The Yankees hoped that Britton had recaptured his excellence from years prior, and that he’d give them a fifth elite reliever alongside Dellin Betances, Aroldis Chapman, Chad Green, and David Robertson. Britton, though, was uneven upon coming to New York, before eventually putting things together as the season winded down.

On the whole, his numbers for the year were good: a 3.10 ERA (140 ERA+) in 40.2 innings, with a somewhat uninspiring 34-to-21 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Just with the Yankees, his run prevention numbers were ultimately shinier, with a 2.88 ERA (169 ERA+), against a 21-to-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Britton did have a strong run to close the season after his bumpy beginning in pinstripes. He was battered for six runs in 7.1 innings across his first eight appearances with the Yankees. From there, he was outstanding, maintaining a 1.02 ERA in his final 17 games, holding opponents to a microscopic OPS of .399.

I highlighted what changed for Britton down the stretch in this piece at the end of the season. In short, at the start of the season, Britton’s sinker, his primary pitch, was a shadow of itself. Not only was its velocity diminished, down to about 95 mph, but the pitch’s horizontal and vertical movement was less sharp.

As the year progressed, however, Britton started to regain some of the zip on his sinker. He didn’t bump up its velocity, but it started to move more both horizontally and vertically. In terms of movement, his sinker very closely resembled his sinker from 2016, when Britton posted a 0.54 ERA. Britton’s return to form with his sinker allowed him to miss more bats, get hitters to chase, and simply more look like the pitcher he was at his peak.

Whether Britton can hold on to that refined sinker is probably the key to whether he will continue to dominate in the future. The Britton that fumbled across his first month or so with the Yankees is not a pitcher the team will want to bring back. On the other hand, the Britton whose sinker was darting in on the hands of lefties and down and way from right-handed hitters at the end of the season is highly enticing.

For better or worse, it appears that the free agent market is mostly viewing Britton as the guy that was strong at season’s end. The market for Britton has reportedly heated up, with the Phillies and Cardinals both interested. The Phillies make abundant sense for Britton, as Philidelphia lacks a truly elite reliever, has expressed a desire to spend money this offseason, and tried to make a run at Britton this past trade deadline.

Britton has been on the Yankees’ radar as well, and a return to the Bronx would make sense for the Yankees, as they want to maintain the deep bullpen that has been their calling card for years. Some reports indicate Britton wants to close, however, something he would do very little of in 2019 if he re-signed with New York.

MLB Trade Rumors pegged Britton for a three-year, $33 million pact on the open market, while FanGraphs’ Kiley McDaniel predicted three years, $30 million. If the Yankees match or exceed that price, they would certainly have a shot at bringing back Britton in spite of his desire to close. It’s up to them if they want to go to those lengths to get Britton back in pinstripes. It all comes back to the sinker for Britton, and he had it clicking by the end of 2018. If that’s any indication, Britton could be as good as ever in 2019.