The Yankees should be pursuing the likes of Manny Machado, but the hole in the bullpen was much larger than the need for a $30 million per season position player.
As such, the Yankees sought out a familiar face in left-handed reliever Zach Britton to seal the gap, laying out a guaranteed $39 million for three years. The agreement has a fourth year option for $14 million that the Yanks can exercise after year two of the deal. If the Yankees decide not to grant the option, Britton has the ability to opt out of the deal. If neither happens, Britton sticks around for the third year.
Either way, the Yankees, who are being criticized by some for their lack of spending, are sinking significant cash into a set-up reliever and there’s a reason for that.
The Yankees desire to ink Machado is obviously understandable – generational talents that fit the roster do not come around often, and the club clearly maintains the means to get a deal done. However, the Yankees roster is not necessarily in dire need of Machado’s services.
While Didi Gregorius is out for at least the first half of the season, the club has added Troy Tulowitzki to the mix and has definitively stated the latter will be the Yanks shortstop. Meanwhile, if Miguel Andujar, who finished second in Rookie of the Year balloting, can play an average third base, his bat could be every bit as potent as Machado’s.
No doubt, Machado is an upgrade over both Tulowitzki and Andujar, but the Yankees have bigger necessities. Further, as the team understands Machado’s desire to play in New York above the other clubs in the mix and the backup plans in place, the pace of resolution does not need to be frenetic. With former Yanks reliever David Robertson signing with the Phillies, the team clearly believed it was time to settle a larger hole in the roster, and the pace with Machado allowed New York to move on Britton first.
The Yanks may very well end up signing Machado, but the re-addition of Britton to the roster is arguably more important to the team’s success. Today’s game necessitates a strong bullpen, and while the Yankees already had Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green in the fold, Britton boosts the backend of the pen into the conversation of one of the best crews in the game. The strength and depth of the bullpen is also important to the Yankees because of the suspect ability of the club’s rotation to provide significant innings game to game.
With Britton, the Yankees minimally receive a strong left-handed setup man, but his upside goes beyond that. The 31-year-old provides a true backup to Chapman, which is important considering the fact that Chapman has missed time in each of the last two seasons. Chapman has also endured his fair share of unproductive stretches, even losing the closer role for a time in 2017. Betances has proven to be more productive as a set-up man, and Green is not at the level required to close out games.
There is some reasonable concern over Britton’s somewhat lackluster 2018 season in which he pitched to a 3.10 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 34 strikeouts in 40 2/3 combined innings with the Orioles and Yankees. Britton saved seven games in 2018 and owns 142 saves in his eight-year career (five of which have been as a reliever).
We should consider that Britton returned in June, about six months after suffering a ruptured right Achilles tendon. He was clearly rusty, which should have been anticipated coming back with no spring training off that substantial injury.
Unsurprisingly, it took the southpaw much of the summer to find some sort of rhythm. Britton was able to string together 17 relief appearances with the Yankees from Aug. 16 through the end of the regular season, where he resembled the pitcher that dominated the ninth inning for the Orioles – 17 2/3 IP, 1.02 ERA, .145 BAA and .399 OPS.
Britton may have lost some of the strikeout ability (something that can be remedied), but he was still generating tons of ground balls, which is an important factor when pitching in Yankee Stadium. That span of dominance was evidently enough to convince the Yankees that Britton should be its bullpen focus this winter as they refrained from making an offer to Robertson.
Ultimately, the Yankees believed the bullpen construction was more important than Machado as well, and assured its strength by agreeing to terms with Britton. The Yankees can now turn their attention to the big fish, one that feels as much a luxury as a necessity, versus the flat out requirement Britton represents.