After weeks and weeks of rumors, the Yankees have finally added to their bullpen. Over the weekend they agreed to re-sign Zach Britton to a unique two-year contract. The deal includes a two-year club option and a one-year player option, and can reportedly max out at $53M. Prepare to see more lefty hellsinkers in the Bronx. Here are some thoughts on the deal.
1. The Yankees let the reliever I wanted them to re-sign walk and re-signed the reliever I wanted them to let walk. Between contract projections and expected performance, I thought David Robertson was the best free agent reliever on the market this offseason. Two days into the offseason I said re-signing Robertson was a no-brainer. You have to really squint your eyes and nitpick to see any signs of decline and, well, negotiating against a player without an agent was bound to result in a team friendly contract, and that’s exactly what happened. Robertson (two years and a club option) received a lower average annual value than Britton (two years that could become four years) and Andrew Miller (two years with a vesting option), and likely lower than Adam Ottavino. I mean, come on, does anyone really think Britton at his contract is a better deal than Robertson at his contract? Not a chance. I know it’s not that simple — who says Robertson would’ve taken the same deal from the Yankees? — but gosh, even ignoring contracts, give me the durable high strikeout reliever who aced every “can he handle New York and the postseason?” test you could conjure up. It is my opinion that the Yankees signed the inferior reliever to a larger contract. They’re better today than they were at this time last week. They’re also not as good as they could’ve been.
2. That all said, Britton isn’t bad. I expect him to be comfortably above-average this coming season and probably also in 2020 as well. We almost certainly will never see 2014-16 Zach Britton again because no one maintains that level of dominance long-term, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an effective part of a championship caliber bullpen. Three things give me pause. One, he’s had some notable injuries the last two years, specifically two bouts with forearm tightness in 2017 and the blown Achilles last winter. Two, he went from a 30.2% strikeout rate and a 6.3% walk rate from 2015-16 to a 19.1% strikeout rate and a 11.8% walk rate from 2017-18. Not exactly an encouraging trend! This seems bad:
And three, Britton is essentially a one-pitch guy. It is a great pitch, Britton has arguably the best sinker in baseball, but I worry about its effectiveness as he loses velocity and maybe also some movement with age. Does he have enough other weapons to compensate? Aroldis Chapman started to emphasize his slider last season and remained very effective, so perhaps Britton can do the same. Chapman threw his slider much more throughout his career than Britton has thrown his curveball though, and I’m not sure his curve can be as effective as Chapman’s slider. Much like the J.A. Happ re-signing, the Britton re-signing is fine but I am a little underwhelmed. I thought Robertson and Ottavino offered similar expected performance with greater overall upside because they miss so many more bats. Happ over Patrick Corbin, Britton over Robertson or Ottavino, Troy Tulowitzki over an infielder who’s been good more recently than 2016. The Yankees did fine but I can’t help but feel like they could’ve done better.
3. The other thing that worries me with Britton is his reliance on ground balls. In the launch angle era, ground balls are great. They help reduce homers. Britton has an excellent sinker and, while he hasn’t been Zach effin’ Britton the last two years, his 72.8% ground ball rate last season is as good as it gets. We have reliable batted ball data going back to 2002. Here are the top six ground ball seasons since then (min. 30 innings):
- 2016 Zach Britton: 80.0%
- 2015 Zach Britton: 79.1%
- 2012 Brad Ziegler: 75.5%
- 2014 Zach Britton: 75.3%
- 2017 Scott Alexander: 73.8%
- 2018 Zach Britton: 73.0%
2017 Zach Britton is ninth at 72.6%. Clearly, Britton’s sinker and ground ball ability are elite skills, and that was true the last two years even while his strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction. Ground balls are good. Strikeouts are better, but ground ball are good. My concern here is that the Yankees’ infield defense, as presently constituted, stinks. Miguel Andujar and Luke Voit are butchers on the corners, Gleyber Torres was error prone last season, and you’ll have to forgive me for not having high hopes for present day Tulowitzki. The Yankees could still improve their infield defense between now and Opening Day. I’m just not sure it’ll happen. And now they’re locked into a reliever who needs a good infield defense because he lives and dies with ground balls. Hopefully the Yankees improve their infield defense or can at least mitigate the potential damage with shifts and good positioning, otherwise things could get ugly at times.
4. For the sixth time in the last seven months, the Yankees have acquired a pitcher who throws a high percentage of fastballs. Britton has thrown his sinker more than 90% of the time since moving to the bullpen permanently in 2014. Here are the top five fastball usage rates among starters last season:
- Lance Lynn: 88.9% (acquired at the deadline)
- James Paxton: 81.5% (acquired in the offseason)
- David Price: 74.9%
- Jon Lester: 74.8%
- J.A. Happ: 73.3% (acquired at the deadline then re-signed in the offseason)
Counting the Happ trade and the Happ re-signing as two separate transactions, and the Britton trade and the Britton re-signing as two separate transactions, that’s six times the Yankees have brought in an extreme fastball pitcher since last July. The Yankees as a team threw only 47.5% fastballs last season, the lowest rate in baseball. Now they’re apparently hoarding fastball guys. Coincidence? Probably not at this point, though it is curious they’ve shifted to the other extreme. They’ve gone from no fastballs to all fastballs, basically. I think the Happ trade and Lynn trade were as much about the market as their skills, if not more. The Yankees needed starters at the deadline and those two were available, so they got them. Same with Britton. He was the best rental reliever on the market so the Yankees got him. Maybe after bringing those guys in at the deadline the Yankees came to the conclusion that variety is good and not everyone needs the organizational stamp? Or maybe they were never as married to the anti-fastball philosophy as it appeared? Whatever it is, I find it pretty fascinating the Yankees have had a clearly defined pitching strategy in place the last few years — the numbers don’t lie, they the Yankees haven’t thrown many fastballs the last two seasons — and are now going in the complete opposite direction. A game of adjustments, it is.
5. I figured it was only a matter of time until the Yankees signed someone to the Yusei Kikuchi/Jake Arrieta contract structure. I just didn’t think it would happen this soon. I’m kinda mad at myself for not realizing Britton is a Scott Boras client and connecting the dots sooner. Britton gets two years with a two-year club option and a one-year player option, which means one of three things will happen:
- Britton is good: Four years and $53M
- Britton is bad: Three years and $39M
- Britton is okay: Two years and $26M
If Britton pitches well the next two years, the Yankees will pick up the club option. If Britton pitches poorly the next two years, the Yankees will decline the club option and he’ll pick up the player option. If he’s somewhere in the middle, well, that’s where it gets interesting. For Britton to reenter free agency in two years he’ll have to pitch well enough to be confident he can beat the $13M player option on the open market — he doesn’t have to beat $13M annually, just $13M total (two years and $20M would work, for example) — but not well enough to convince the Yankees to exercise the club option. Seems like the needle would have to be threaded perfectly for that to happen. Good enough to get a nice free agent contract but not good enough for the Yankees to keep him around. These new contracts are going to lead to some very interesting option decisions in the coming years. I wonder if we’ll see any unintended consequences along the way.
6. The most important number with Britton’s contract: $13M. That is his luxury tax hit the next two seasons. My quick math puts the Yankees’ luxury tax payroll at approximately $210M for the coming season, which is over the $206M threshold. For what it’s worth, Cot’s has them at $207.2M, but my number includes estimates for in-season injury/September call-ups (based on last year). Either way, the Yankees are over the luxury tax threshold. Will they stay there? That’s the big question. Sonny Gray has a projected $9.1M salary for 2019 and he feels destined to wear another uniform at some point, possibly soon. Trading Gray and the bulk of his salary puts the Yankees right back under the luxury tax threshold. I am a luxury tax skeptic. I’ll believe the Yankees will go over (and stay over) the threshold when the pieces make it clear it will happen. Going $4M over to sign Britton when Gray hasn’t been traded yet isn’t enough convince me they’ll stay over. I think one of two things will happen. Either the Yankees will manage to sign Manny Machado and go clear over the luxury tax threshold (and probably into the second penalty tier), or Machado will go elsewhere, and the Yankees will work to get back under the threshold (i.e. trade Gray). Or at least get as close to the threshold as possible to reduce the penalty. Hopefully I’m wrong and the Yankees will continue to spend and exceed the threshold. Right now, I’m still skeptical, even though Britton pushed them over the threshold ever so slightly. He pushed them over, but not so much that it can’t be corrected with one quick move (i.e. trade Gray).
7. The Yankees should continue to spend, of course. Sign Bryce Harper, sign Machado, sign Ottavino, sign another infielder. Sign ’em all. It’s not going to happen though. Harper and Machado are special cases in their own little universe. In the real world, it is not unreasonable to believe the Yankees should add another reliever because, right now, they are one David Robertson short of the bullpen they had the last two months of last year. This is the projected Opening Day bullpen at the moment:
- Closer: Aroldis Chapman
- Setup: Dellin Betances, Zach Britton
- Middle: Chad Green, Jonathan Holder, Tommy Kahnle (out-of-options)
- Long: Luis Cessa (out-of-options)
- Depth: Chance Adams, Domingo German, Joe Harvey, Jonathan Loaisiga, Stephen Tarpley
The Yankees are a three-man bench/eight-man bullpen team now and, based on the above, there is still an open bullpen spot. It could be a revolving door spot. You know how it is, right? Guys go up and down as needed throughout the year, due to injury or workload or whatever. Or that spot could go to another top reliever like Ottavino or Kelvin Herrera, someone to effectively replace Robertson as a high-leverage guy. That turns the Kahnle and/or Cessa spots into revolving doors and I’m totally cool with that. The more bullpen depth the better. Right now, as good as the bullpen looks, it’s worse on paper than it was at the end of last season because Robertson has not been adequately replaced. The Yankees really should splurge on Ottavino or Herrera or someone else capable of high-leverage work. I think it’s a necessity more than a luxury.
8. Speaking of the bullpen construction, what are the roles now? The Yankees love their bullpen roles. They used them under Joe Girardi and they continued to use them under Aaron Boone. Chapman’s the closer so he’ll be saved for the ninth inning. Dellin Betances is the eighth inning guy until further notice. I guess that makes Britton the seventh inning guy? And Green fills in the gaps as necessary? I’d love love love to see Betances and Britton used in a setup man platoon. Betances faces the tough righties and Britton faces the tough lefties, regardless of whether they’re due to bat in the seventh or eighth inning. That’d be ideal. At this point though, it’s probably not going to happen. Everything the Yankees have done the last few years — across two separate managers at that — indicates they’ll have a clearly defined seventh, eighth, and ninth inning relievers. Whatever. When you have this many good relievers, chances are the Yankees will have someone qualified on the mound in the game’s biggest moment in the late innings. The Yankees will miss Robertson in his fireman role. I firmly believe that. Entering into a jam and strikeout-ing his way out of it. That was Robertson’s thing. I’m not sure who does that now. Green? Maybe. Britton is too reliant on ground balls. Runners can steal on Betances, making him a less than ideal candidate to enter with men on base. This’ll probably sort itself out. The Yankees do love their defined bullpen roles and I expect that to continue, and I’m glad Britton is willing to pitch in any role. He’s unselfish and doesn’t need to close. That’s an obvious plus.
9. Alright, so what’s the 40-man roster move? I think it’s down Ben Heller, Tim Locastro, or Kyle Higashioka. Among those three, Higashioka is probably most secure. He’s an optionable third catcher and that’s a useful piece. Dumping catching depth should be a last resort and the Yankees aren’t there yet. Locastro is a speedy utility guy and the Yankees gave up an actual player (Drew Finley) to get him, which indicates they like him enough. It wasn’t a cash trade or a waiver claim. They gave up a recent third round pick. I think that pushes Heller to the front of the line. He is still rehabbing from Tommy John surgery and, at this point, keeping the healthy fringe big league arms (Cessa, Kahnle) over the injured fringe big league arm (Heller) makes the most sense. I’m still surprised the Yankees didn’t pull the non-tender/re-sign to minor league deal move with Heller, though I suppose he could’ve indicated he wasn’t willing to cooperate, and the Yankees weren’t ready to cut him loose. At this point though, given the 40-man roster situation, I think Heller is most likely to go to make room for Britton. Now prepare for it to be someone else entirely.