So far, 2021 hasn’t been kind to Zack Britton. In January, he fell ill after catching COVID-19, as he recently told the New York Post, and he explained that he lost a lot of weight as a consequence. The Yankees were bringing him along slowly through spring training to make sure he was healthy.
However, his buildup was halted on Tuesday, as he reportedly felt some soreness after throwing a bullpen session, which was later revealed to be on his left (pitching) elbow.
The Yankees sent him for an MRI, which revealed a bone chip from his left elbow. The club informed that the pitcher would be returning to New York to have surgery “in the upcoming days,” expected to be performed by Dr. Christopher Ahmad at the New York-Presbyterian Hospital.
According to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, the surgery will be arthroscopic, and the expected recovery time is “typically at least a month — usually more — and Britton will need to ramp back up before returning.” We would be talking about, at least, two or three months as an estimate.
When it comes to Britton, any extended absence is very tough to overcome for the Yankees. And in this case, even if he managed to avoid the dreaded Tommy John surgery, the team will miss him dearly during the first couple of months of the season. There is a case to be made that Britton is the most valuable and reliable member of the Yankees’ bullpen, even above Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. They were the only hurlers in Aaron Boone’s circle of trust during last year’s postseason run.
Do the Yankees have enough to cover Britton’s absence?
For the 2021 campaign, the unit as a whole looks better than the 2020 bullpen — at least on paper — as New York managed to replace Adam Ottavino, Tommy Kahnle, and Jonathan Holder with Justin Wilson and Darren O’Day. In addition, Jonathan Loáisiga, Michael King, Nick Nelson, Brooks Kriske, Luis Cessa, and other arms in the organization have another year of experience.
This year’s signings, O’Day and Wilson, were very good in 2020. The former had a 1.10 ERA and a 32.8 strikeout rate last season, and the latter had a 3.66 ERA and a 3.04 FIP in 19.2 frames, with a fine 10.53 K/9.
Yet Britton is the one that manager Aaron Boone can call at any spot and situation and know that he will be prepared and competitive, with a perfect combination of talent and experience.
Although he is not known for his bat-missing ability at this stage of his career (his K/9 was 7.78 in 2019 and 7.58 in 2020, although it was as high as 10.83 during his prime with the Baltimore Orioles in 2015) he has proven time and time again that he can get strikeouts when he needs them, even in big spots. Additionally, he minimizes hard contact (87.4 mph of average exit velocity) and keeps the ball in the ground like no other pitcher in the major leagues (career 66.6 groundball percentage, and it was 71.7 in 2020).
Britton’s sinker is wicked, and since contact on the ground is the best outcome that a pitcher can allow aside of popups, the Yankees have an edge with the lefty on their roster. He is, additionally, a respected figure in the Yankees’ clubhouse. And he has earned that respect with top-notch behavior off the field and excellent performance on it: to this date, Britton is the owner of a 3.04 career ERA in 622 frames.
That’s why the Yankees’ community — and by community I mean front office, coaches, teammates, and fans — will miss him during the time he is on the shelf. His impact on the team makes him virtually irreplaceable. The Bombers do have some intriguing arms in the ‘pen, but in order to make up for Britton’s extended absence, there needs to be one or multiple breakout performances.