The Yankees have been busy this week. First they secured Troy Tulowitzki to add to their infield, and now they’ve re-signed Zach Britton to further strengthen their bullpen. The terms of the contract are a bit complicated, with ESPN’s Jeff Passan reporting Britton is due $39 million over three years. The Yankees can guarantee a fourth year after year-two, and if they decide not to, Britton has the right to opt out of the deal.
With Britton back in the fold, the Yankees are maintaining the status quo. The team has made elite relief pitching a high priority for years now, doubling down on adding premier relief arms almost constantly. This signing fits in with the club’s recent history, right alongside Aroldis Chapman’s five-year deal in 2016, Andrew Miller’s four-year contract back in 2014, and even Britton’s own acquisition via trade from the Orioles prior to the 2018 trade deadline.
Of course, this assumes that Britton is, in fact, an elite pitcher, an assumption that came under fire at times during an uneven 2018. Coming off an Achilles tendon injury, Britton struggled at the season’s outset, yielding six runs across his first eight appearances while allowing an opponents OPS of .893.
Yet as Britton distanced himself from his injury, he slowly returned to form. I wrote at the end of the regular season that Britton had recaptured much of what had made him great during his transcendent 2016 campaign. His signature sinker gained horizontal and vertical movement as the season progressed, and the by the end of the year, the pitch closely resembled the shape it exhibited back in 2016.
The improvement of his sinker was reflected in the results, as Britton finished the year with a 153 ERA+ in pinstripes. Moreover, in his final 17 appearances of the season, Britton surrendered just two earned runs over 17.2 innings, holding opponents to a .399 OPS. He was about as dominant as he’d been in years.
The Britton that closed 2018 with his sinker flying in on the hands of lefties and darting away from righties is an excellent relief pitcher, one worth every penny the Yankees will pay him. That Britton gives the Yankees the uber-bullpen they have so craved, one they will look to deploy early and often as the team (hopefully) progresses through the playoffs this October.
Therein lies much of the value Britton could provide. With four potentially all-world relief pitchers on hand, manager Aaron Boone will be at liberty to get creative with his bullpen. The blueprint set out by Miller and Terry Francona in 2016 stands out as an ever-present schematic for what a fully untethered relief ace can do when neither manager nor player is pinned down to rigid bullpen roles.
With two premier lefties, Britton and Chapman, along with two rigthies, Dellin Betances and Chad Green, Boone doesn’t have to worry about saving a pitcher with a certain handedness for a later at-bat. He can deploy his relievers freely and aggressively, in the late and middle innings. Boone had this ability last year, of course, and at times fell back on the likes of A.J. Cole and Chasen Shreve, so there’s no guarantee Britton or any of the Yankees relievers will be used in a particularly creative manner.
Boone acted slowly at moments in the playoffs as well, bypassing opportunities to bring in his super-bullpen early in the game at critical junctures. With Britton back in the fold, those opportunities will still be on the table in the playoffs. Boone will again have chances to bring in fire-balling southpaws and right-handers from the bullpen at a moment’s notice in October, and it will be up to him and the Yankees to ensure that they are used optimally.
Ultimately, targeting Britton at this point made sense. The Yankees have five solid or better starters penciled into their rotation. They are stacked with starting-caliber position players across the diamond. The only real way to make an impact addition to the roster, save signing a superstar like Manny Machado (which they should do), was to continue to deepen their pitching staff. “You can never have too much pitching” is a cliché, but in this case, it’s a cliché because it’s true.
The Yankees added more pitching, added flexibility, and did it all for just money. Britton truly did start to recapture his form at the end of last season, and if he can do so from the outset in 2019, he profiles as an elite arm. Along with the rest of the Yankees’ high-octane staff, Britton gives Boone and company options to work with, and a fearsome postseason unit. The Yankees are better and more prepared to contend today than they were yesterday, and that’s a good thing.