Following the 2020 season, the New York Yankees had no reason to believe that Zack Britton would falter in the back of their bullpen. After he finished the shortened season with a 1.89 ERA, the team even picked up his contract option for 2022, preventing him from opting out.
Alas, midway through spring training, Britton was diagnosed with a bone chip in his elbow, requiring surgery. When he returned in June, he posted his worst numbers by far since switching to the bullpen full-time in 2014. In September, the lefty went under the knife again to remove more bone chips; shortly afterward, the team announced that he’d in fact also had an injured UCL and received Tommy John surgery.
While the soon-to-be 34-year-old is signed through next season, he will spend most if not all of it rehabbing. It seems that Britton’s Yankee career may very well be over.
2021 Statistics: 22 games, 18.1 IP, 5.89 ERA, 5.46 FIP, 5.00 xFIP, 7.9 K/9, 6.9 BB/9, -0.2 fWAR
2022 Contract Status: $14 million salary, under contract until 2023
Britton’s long run as one of the best relievers in baseball ended with a thud this year. To be fair, the injuries to his elbow were obviously a factor all season, but how garish his 2021 numbers stand out compared to his previous seasons truly stands out. He gave up over three walks per innings more this year than he did in 2020, something that could definitely be attributed to the pain in his elbow affecting his release point.
The same is true for Britton’s home run rate of 1.0 HR/9, easily the highest of his career. Yes, he had a very limited sample size of innings in 2021, but his advanced numbers don’t suggest that he was unlucky. If he can recover properly from his surgeries, perhaps he can bounce back to his old form, but it’s a hard thing to count on.
For the Yankees as a whole, Britton’s absence as a solid eighth-inning option had ripple effects for the rest of the bullpen, including Aroldis Chapman. When the closer went through awful patches, Britton failed to successfully step in (most notably in the Field of Dreams Game). In fact, the situation may have indirectly led to Brian Cashman’s acquisition of Clay Holmes from Pittsburgh, who looked dominant in New York and could play the role Britton once played in the bullpen in 2022.
As relievers tend to need less time to build up following Tommy John than starters, it’s possible that Britton could return late in 2022, but it’s not something the front office can count on at all — one setback, common following the procedure, and he will have to enter free agency having missed most of two seasons. It’s not a great spot, and Yankee fans can feel for him after the great performances he’s put up for the team since being traded by Baltimore in 2018.
Still, the Yankees may not want to offer him a contract after 2022 even if it’s for far less than the $14 million he’ll earn while rehabbing (which insurance should cover for New York). The 2021 season showed how tight the American League East is, and the importance of every player on the team performing at the highest level. The 2021 season, then, could be an unfortunately sour cap on what was a good New York tenure for Zack Britton.