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Why the Yankees are pursuing Zach Britton over David Robertson

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The probability of bringing back both was low, but the Yankees could capture higher upside in bringing back Britton rather than D-Rob.

MLB: New York Yankees at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

News broke yesterday that the Phillies had signed former Yankee David Robertson to a two-year, $23 million deal with a team option for a third year. Robertson, who was negotiating for himself this offseason, was one of three candidates the Yankees were heavily considering to fill the two voids from their 2018 bullpen. Lefty Zach Britton, acquired by New York via trade from the Orioles midseason, could also depart in this offseason, and stands as one of the top options that remains with Robertson off the board.

The immediate aftermath of Robertson’s departure showed that the Yankees seem more focused on pursuing Britton. When the offseason began with both Robertson and Britton as free agent, it was more than likely that at least one of them would be on another team in 2019. Allowing the long-time Yankee in Robertson to depart without locking down either one yet seems worrisome, but there might be reason to believe that Britton will be the more valuable reliever heading forward.

Let’s start off with where they both ended 2018. Robertson posted a 3.23 ERA last season in 69.2 innings, striking out 91 and walking 26. Britton posted a 3.10 ERA in only 40.2 innings with 34 strikeouts and 21 walks, which on the surface is definitely an alarming ratio. However, half of those walks came in the 15 innings he tossed for Baltimore, when he was just returning from his Achilles injury the previous season.

Britton definitely started 2018 as an unknown, but he got sharper after being traded to New York and getting some innings under his belt. In total, he recorded 25 innings as a Yankee with a 2.88 ERA, good for a 153 ERA+. Not only that, Britton exhibited clear signs that he had recaptured his dominant sinker towards the end of the season. The teams bidding for Britton are betting on that return to form signaling that Britton is closer to the Cy Young-level reliever he was at his peak in 2016.

Robertson, meanwhile, will be entering his age-34 season next year, while Britton only just turned 31. Aside from an insane run in 2017 after being traded back to the Yankees where he was worth 1.8 bWAR as a non-closer, Robertson derives much of his value by bringing a high floor and a consistent level of dependable production. In letting him walk to the Phillies, the Yankees are choosing to gamble on the higher upside from a younger Britton.

Britton, of course, has yet to put pen on paper and confirm where he is going. Thus, there’s even more of a risk in that he may not choose to even play for the Yankees in 2019. The scenario has changed in favor of him returning, however. The Yankees have a horde of potential live-armed relief pitchers down in the minors, as well as players like Tommy Kahnle who were once excellent but fell victim to the reliever roulette in 2018.

This allows them to bid hard on Britton to ensure one of those holes is filled with an elite arm, while also holding a host of options available should the team fail to find a second reliever on the market to complement Britton. The Yankees getting an early preview of Britton’s ability in 2018 before he hit the market also means that they could be more confident in what he has left in his arm. Seeing Robertson depart again is tough, but hopefully the Yankees are aware of what they’re doing in pursuing Britton over him. Now comes the matter of actually securing a commitment from the lefty.