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The case against picking up Zack Britton’s option

The Yankees’ southpaw is coming off a great season, but is it really wise to sign up for two more years?

MLB: ALDS-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

With the World Series under way and the 2020 MLB season speeding toward a conclusion, we’re only days away from the first significant decisions that will shape the 2021 edition of the New York Yankees. Perhaps chief among those, in order of chronology if not importance, is what to do with lefty reliever Zack Britton, whose unusual and complicated contract will require the club’s attention.

Prior to the 2019 season, the Yankees and Britton reached a three-year, $39 million deal that contained a quirky option that comes into play following this season. The Yankees hold an option for a fourth year, at $14 million, which they must choose to execute within three days of the conclusion of this year’s World Series. That would essentially lock up the southpaw for another two years. If they decide not to, Britton has the right to opt out of his contract immediately (he has an additional two days to decide) and become a free agent. Or he can choose to stay and play out the remaining year on his deal.

Britton is coming off an excellent, albeit shortened, 2020 season. He maintained a 1.89 ERA (2.61 FIP) over 19 innings and led his fellow relievers in fWAR with 0.5. He also put up similarly strong numbers in 2019: a 1.91 ERA (3.74 FIP) in 61.1 innings. Coming off two inarguably effective seasons, it seems like a no-brainer to sign up for two more, right?

Maybe not.

The fundamental question facing the Yankees is this: is it riskier to commit $14 million to a 34-year-old reliever (which Britton would be in year four of the deal) or face the prospect of losing Britton immediately? I’d argue the former is the more dangerous route, especially considering the prospect of age-related decline and the ballooning salary obligations the Yankees will have to their arbitration-eligible players.

But let’s spend a moment on the latter possibility. Sizing up what could be a depressed free-agent market due to lost revenue this year (whether you think it’s a legitimate excuse for billionaire owners to make or not, one thing is certain: they’ll make it), the certainty of the $13 million for one more year might be too much for Britton to pass up. He’ll need to decide quickly and with so much uncertainty looming, a bird in the hand might look quite reassuring.

So, with the caveat that only Britton, his family, and his agent Scott Boras know which way he’d be leaning at this point, I think there’s a decent chance Britton comes back for next season. Or at least there’s a better chance of that happening now than there would have been in an alternate timeline without any pandemic-related uncertainty.

Now let’s spend some more time on the question of committing a sizable contract to a 34-year-old bullpen arm. Relief pitching can be notoriously fickle. Look no further than Britton’s teammate Adam Ottavino, who the Yankees signed to a three-year, $27 million deal prior to 2019. After excelling in his first season in pinstripes (1.90 ERA in 66.1 innings), Ottavino tanked in 2020, pitching to a 5.89 ERA in 18.1 innings. To be fair, it was a small sample and his FIP was considerably better (3.52), but it’s undeniable that manager Aaron Boone lost faith in him, calling his number just once this postseason. Given the inherent volatility of relievers, how confident can the Yankees truly be about what an aging Britton can give them in 2022, especially considering what he’ll cost?

Ah, the cost. Let’s linger here for a moment as well. There is a narrative building in local media coverage that the Yankees’ principle objective this offseason will be to slash salary. I won’t litigate that issue fully here, except to say that the notion that the Yankees need to cut payroll is absurd. Despite whatever financial hardship they and other MLB clubs have endured this season, they still rank as the most valuable baseball team by a wide margin and are second only to the Dallas Cowboys among global sports franchises, according to Forbes. Say what you will about operating cash flow, the Yankees are not hurting for coin. It’s not about what they can spend, it’s about what they choose to spend.

That aside, it’s fair to question whether investing large sums of money in bullpens is the best approach. I realize it’s nauseatingly convenient to use the Tampa Bay Rays as a benchmark, but they’ve certainly earned their place as one of the game’s best-run organizations and trying to glean the odd lesson from them is understandable. Looking at the Rays’ bullpen as currently constituted, according to Roster Resource, their relievers generated 3.7 fWAR in 2020 at a cost of roughly $5.75 million (salary based on a normal 162-game season). Pitchers like Nick Anderson and Pete Fairbanks have led a cavalcade of seemingly anonymous arms to a World Series berth, all while making close to the the league minimum. Only one reliever, Aaron Loup, had a contract greater than $600,000 (he made $1.2 million).

The Yankees’ bullpen, as most recently constituted, generated just 1.3 fWAR at a comparatively astronomical cost of $44.1 million (Aroldis Chapman, Britton, and Ottavino account for nearly $40 million of that total). The Rays paid around $1.5 million for each win above replacement out of the bullpen; the Yankees paid $33.9 million.

Going further, if you took the top 29 relief pitchers in fWAR in 2020—I chose that number because that’s how many had an fWAR of 0.6 or better—the median salary was just $1.25 million. Eleven of those players made under $1 million. The bullpen is where front offices are perhaps most likely to find star-level performances for bargain prices.

So, given the volatility of the trade and the increasingly high replacement level among relievers, perhaps adopting a more nimble and flexible approach would serve the Yankees well. Try more young arms in bigger roles. Take more fliers on overlooked players that could prove to be a diamond in the rough, if only for a year. This would put a lot more pressure on the front office, but they’ve had similar successes with Luke Voit and Gio Urshela on the position player front recently.

Such a revamped approach would be easier to try if the team wasn’t saddled with high-priced relievers. Last week on this site, Joshua Diemert argued for the Yankees to take a page from the Rays and adopt more of a “bullpen-without-roles” strategy. It’s a lot easier to flatten the pecking order if there isn’t a small cadre of big-money players expecting defined roles.

All of this suggests the Yankees’ best course of action regarding Britton will be to decline the fourth-year option. If he stays for next year, then great: the Yankees have a dependable, if expensive reliever, and they’ll be able to redirect the money they’d have owed him in year four to other areas of need. If he elects to walk away immediately, then the Yankees will be forced to reimagine their bullpen construction, which could well turn out to be a blessing in disguise.