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Zack Britton’s potential return could give the Yankees bullpen an edge

There are still hurdles to clear, but the Yankees bullpen could get a major upgrade if Britton returns and quickly finds his form

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Yankees bullpen has been ravaged by injuries and unexpected stars underperforming this year. The situation has tested the team’s overall pitching depth, and they haven’t always aced that test.

Any returning pitcher with talent is enough to bring excitement to the fan base, especially with the playoffs approaching. When that pitcher is two-time All-Star Zack Britton, who has consistently proven that he is a top reliever when fully healthy, it’s impossible not to imagine how great of an addition he would be.

The 34-year-old Britton only pitched 18.1 ineffective innings last year, as he had persistent hamstring issues in the first half, and elbow problems led to Tommy John surgery in September. The southpaw is, however, already pitching rehab games and could be an option to return before the end of the year.

Britton pitched a scoreless inning last week in Somerset and completed another flawless outing on Wednesday for the Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. On Tuesday, however, Yankees’ manager Aaron Boone put the brakes and stated he is “still not sure” Britton will return in 2022.

“I know he’s doing really well,” the skipper said, per’s Bryan Hoch. “I’ve not wanted to put that kind of pressure on the situation. We’ll just see how the next several outings go for him and see if he’s a realistic option.”

Britton, in the meantime, keeps accumulating innings, getting comfortable on the mound in a low-pressure environment, and pushing for a September return. According to Conor Foley, the RailRiders beat writer for the Times-Tribune in Scranton, Britton threw 8 of his 11 pitches for strikes on Wednesday, sitting in 91-92 and touching 93.

When Britton was at his best in the mid-2010s — he was perhaps the most reliable lefty reliever in baseball, particularly in 2016 — he averaged about 96 mph on his sinker. However, he showed between 2018 and 2020 that he could also thrive while throwing just under 95 mph.

Before committing on a return this year, the Yankees would probably love to see Britton’s velocity creep back to the 93-94 mph range on average, which is understandable to some extent.

That’s why it’s still not a certainty that Britton will pitch in 2022: it will all depend on his progress and how his arm feels. The fact that he’s already acknowledged that he won’t be able to pitch in back-to-back games this year is certainly going to be a factor. But it’s also a fact that he will have every motivation to get back on an MLB mound: his contract is up after the season, and he will probably pitch for his next payday.

Showing full health and returning to his 2019-20 form would secure him a nice deal in the offseason. He might have had a 5.89 ERA in his 18.1 injury-riddled 2021 innings, but he pitched 80.1 frames between 2019 and 2020 and had a 1.90 ERA with one of the best groundball rates in the league while capably setting up (and occasionally filling in) for Aroldis Chapman. That’s not too shabby.

The Yankees, meanwhile, could really use the lefty in the postseason if he can get at least close to that kind of level. It won’t be easy, given his long layoff and the nature of his injury (elbow UCL reconstruction at 34 is not necessarily “automatic”), but it could be possible. If that happens, the Yanks’ relief corps would receive a major upgrade for the 2022 postseason; and there is always space on the roster for healthy, dominant Britton.