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How Zack Britton can make the Yankees bullpen even better

Could a full year removed from an Achilles injury help Britton rediscover his 2016 self?

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

The Yankees bullpen is already being discussed as the best ever, and we are still two weeks away from the regular season. Looking at the depth chart is enough to think of the Bombers’ relief core in historic proportions, especially with names like Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino, Chad Green, Aroldis Chapman and Zack Britton.

Every pitcher listed above is coming off a great year with exception to Britton, who didn’t begin his season until June thanks to a ruptured Achilles that sidelined him for almost six months. Britton suffered the injury during an offseason workout in December of 2017. He spent most of 2018 looking to return to his old self, which consisted of three straight seasons where he posted a WHIP of less than one from 2014-2016.

Britton represents somewhat of an X-Factor for the bullpen this season. The organization obviously believes in the lefty’s ability to come back strong after spending last season shaking off the cobwebs. Britton was far from elite after the Yanks acquired him from the Orioles last July, but the Yankee bullpen will be even tougher to solve should he be able to get back to his peak performance, or anywhere close to it.

Britton’s spring training outing on Tuesday should already be an encouraging sign of where he’s at in his preparation for a full season of work. Britton tossed two scoreless innings against the Orioles, allowing one hit without issuing a walk. The sinker-heavy reliever wasn’t used in stretches like this last season, likely because of his offseason surgery. Britton never threw two full innings in relief for the Yankees or Orioles in 2018, so his early workload should be an encouraging sign for his 2019 outlook.

Those who are hoping for elite Britton to return should also be encouraged by his trajectory last season, regardless of how gradual it was. While his power sinker lost 1.4 mph, which could be a result of a surgically repaired plant foot sapping some of his power, Britton steadily improved as the season went along. In his first month back in action, Britton posted a 5.81 FIP, an 18 percent walk rate and a strikeout rate of 18 percent. Through the final month of the season, as a member of the Yankees, those numbers improved to 3.39, 10.5 percent and 23.7 percent, respectively. Britton also started the 2018 season allowing a hard contact percentage of 45.8 percent, a number which plunged to 16 percent through September and October.

If last season’s trend continued through a full and healthy offseason for Britton, then the Yankees have to be encouraged. His usage earlier this week likely reflects that confidence already, and replenished effectiveness as well as an increased workload will go a long way for the Yanks in 2019. Given injuries to Luis Severino and CC Sabathia already, fill-in starters like Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga and Luis Cessa will need a quick hook should they run into trouble, and a deep bullpen will have to be waiting. If Britton can eat up more than an inning at a time, that will help ease the workload of the rest of the bullpen, and keep them fresh heading into September and October.