Zack Britton figures to be an important Yankee to watch in 2020. Not only is he a key member of a super bullpen that is expected to lock down the end of games, but his immediate future with the team could go several ways depending on how he performs this season.
When Britton re-signed with New York ahead of the 2019 season, he signed one of the more interesting contracts given out in recent memory. He earned a three-year, $39 million pact that included an opt-out after the 2020 season, but the opt-out wasn’t as simple as most. If Britton elects to use his opt-out, he doesn’t immediately head to free agency. Instead, the Yankees can choose to keep him by picking up an option year for 2022 at $14 million, but they only get to add that year if Britton opts out.
What Britton decides to do with his option is a mystery for now, but in a reliever market that has been volatile over the past decade, Britton’s results this year will likely outweigh any other factors. Steamer projects Britton to pitch to a 3.41 ERA and pick up 62 strikeouts over 65 innings this season, a departure from the dominant numbers he’s put up in his career but still more than serviceable as the set-up man to Aroldis Chapman.
Assuming Britton plays close to those projections, he’ll have a difficult choice ahead of him. His salary is already in line with some of the best-paid relievers in the game, from his own teammate Chapman to Cubs closer Craig Kimbrel to the newest Braves reliever Will Smith, who signed a three-year, $40 million contract this offseason that included a club option for 2023. Getting two more years on that level of pay would be among the best outcomes for Britton, but in order to secure the second year he’d have to use the opt-out and risk the Yankees allowing him to go on the market.
Should he hit free agency, he may find himself earning offers closer to the second-tier of relief pitching. Britton has excellent numbers that would suggest a slight raise in ERA could be a blip on the radar, but also some reason for cautious concern. The achilles injury in 2017 that left him shelved until mid-way through 2018 was a difficult obstacle to overcome, and entering his age-32 season, he may not have the benefit of the doubt in terms of staying healthy through a new deal.
For the Yankees, there’s an argument to be made that either option is beneficial to them. If Britton plays to expectations and wants to opt-out in order to earn the final year of his deal, there’s a lot to gain for the team in opting back in. Brian Cashman just oversaw the opt-out in Chapman’s contract and turned that into an extension, and Britton is the piece right below Chapman in the bullpen order. On the other hand, if the team is even remotely concerned about his projections going forward, they’ve shown in their dealings with Dellin Betances this offseason and David Robertson in 2018 that they’re willing to let people walk.
If Britton stays in top form and dominates in 2020, or if he shows signs of his decline and loses his spot near the top of the ‘pen, then the debate ends quickly. His projections for the year are more middle of the road however, and that will leave plenty of room for inspection on what he’s most likely to be going forward.