Coming into the offseason, the Yankees knew they were going to have some work to do on their bullpen.
Two key pieces of last season’s team, David Robertson and Zach Britton, hit free agency when the 2018 campaign hit its conclusion. The former officially came off the market on Thursday, signing a two year deal with the Phillies worth a minimum of $23 million that included performance incentives and a club option for a third year.
Other big name relievers in Andrew Miller, Jeurys Familia, and old friend Joe Kelly have likewise found new (or in Familia’s case, old) homes for the coming season. As the offseason progresses, fewer and fewer options are left for the Yankees to choose from in the relief pitching market.
By no means is the Yankees bullpen in bad shape. Aroldis Chapman remains a premier closer in the league despite late season injury and control woes. Dellin Betances has reasserted himself as one of the strikeout kings of the MLB. Chad Green and Jonathan Holder both proved to be strong, consistent, if not flashy options for manager Aaron Boone. And Tommy Kahnle lurks in the background after a perplexing combination of a dominant 2017 and disappointing 2018.
Nevertheless, a very real feeling persists among Yankee fans that another marquee arm is needed to solidify the back end of the bullpen after losing Robertson, and possibly Britton as well. I agree, especially given enduring uncertainty about the Yankees rotation and the premium on bullpen arms in the postseason.
In fact, an argument could be made that bringing in two premier arms would be the best option for a team like the Yanks who have consistently prioritized bullpen supremacy in their pursuit of the next championship.
Today, I want to examine the two best remaining options on the market not named Craig Kimbrel (who I can’t imagine in pinstripes, and for whom I definitely can’t imagine management breaking the bank). Given away by the title, those two pitchers are Adam Ottavino and Zach Britton.
Yes, other intriguing options remain including Kelvin Herrera (returning from injury) and Cody Allen (coming off an atrocious year). But both of these pitchers would be massive risks, and likely expensive ones too. While Herrera intrigues me as a secondary piece, neither can be relied upon to anchor the 2019 bullpen due to either health concerns or persisting questions about performance.
As such, I will be breaking down Ottavino and Britton, the two guys I think most likely to succeed in pinstripes and also the two most heavily linked with the Yankees through this offseason.
If you’ve read my previous pieces, you’ll know I reject Yankees’ management’s fiscal austerity and seeming commitment to a low payroll. I would love the team to go out and sign both these guys…and Machado. These are both attractive options for the Yankees to pursue. But in the more realistic scenario when the team can only sign one, it is worth examining who is more likely to help the Yankees bring home championship number 28. To the numbers…
MLBTradeRumors Contract Projection: 3 years, $30 million
Just looking at the top-line numbers from 2018, Ottavino looks like a highly attractive option. His ERA was up there with the best in the league among relievers despite pitching in the notoriously hitter-friendly Coors Field. His strikeout rate was superb, clearly demonstrating the much coveted ability to miss bats. And his 77.2 IP demonstrates his durability and consistency over a long season despite a Tommy John surgery in the not too distant past.
Digging a little deeper, the 2018 numbers continue to be drool-worthy for Ottavino. His 25.3% hard contact rate was nearly 10% better than the league average among relievers, and checked in as the 6th best mark among qualified relievers. This helped Ottavino limit batters to just 0.58 HR/9, well better than the 1.08 HR/9 league average despite pitching in the aforementioned Coors Field. This would all play extremely well at Yankee Stadium, a ballpark that has given trouble to new additions who fail to limit the home run ball (see: Gray, Sonny).
So far, Ottavino checks two of the most important boxes for a Yankees reliever: striking batters out and limiting the home run ball. But two more key considerations that often go together come into play when examining potential bullpen additions: track record and age.
Sudden new “ace” relievers seem to appear as if from nowhere each season, only to disappear just as quickly (see: Kahnle, Tommy). To be worth the investment indicated by Ottavino’s projected three-year, $30 million pact, a pitcher needs to have demonstrated a sustained track record and the potential to maintain a certain elite level of production.
Along these parameters, Ottavino stands on somewhat shakier ground. First, his track record. Perhaps the only consistent thing about his history in the league is his inconsistency season to season. To demonstrate, here are his career ERA marks, in order from when he entered the league (min. 25 IP): 4.56, 2.64, 3.60, 2.67, 5.06, 2.43.
The immediate cynic will note he’s due for an off-year based on this pattern. And while I’m not so silly as to assume there is any sort of logic to that pattern, the fluctuations do remain alarming. In particular, his 5.06 ERA in 2017 (joined by a 5.16 FIP) highlight that Ottavino does not have the sustained record of excellence pitchers like David Robertson and Andrew Miller did.
Despite this potential blemish, the fundamentals remain favorable to Ottavino. He’s maintained above average strikeout levels throughout his time in the league, and has always limited hard contact fairly well. More importantly, he made tangible changes to his repertoire in 2018 in terms of pitch usage that suggest his standout season may be predictive of future success.
Already 33, Ottavino is certainly no young buck. But pitchers, especially relievers, tend to peak and decline later than position players. Especially with a major arm surgery already behind him, the indicators seem good on Ottavino’s health and sustained success going forward. While he may not be a true 2.40 ERA reliever, he certainly appears a strong option to help strengthen the Yankees bullpen.
MLBTradeRumors Contract Projection: 3 years, $33 million
I will keep the Britton portion somewhat shorter, as Yankee fans have been introduced firsthand to his body of work.
After coming over midseason in a trade with the Orioles, Britton started shakily but slowly grew back into something more closely resembling the 2016 All Star and near Cy Young winner. Coming off a devastating Achilles injury in the offseason, Britton struggled with command but continued to demonstrate the ground ball tendencies that made him such a weapon during a terrific career in Baltimore.
Despite toiling through some grueling outings where he clearly didn’t have his best stuff, Britton wrapped up his half season in pinstripes with a 2.88 ERA.
The upside is clear with Britton. At his best, he is the pitcher who engineered ERAs of 1.65, 1.92, and 0.54 in his three full seasons closing for the O’s. Known best for his high velocity bowling ball of a sinker, he surpassed 75% ground balls in all of those years and never allowed greater than 20.6% hard contact against him. His 2016 campaign was the stuff of lore, garnering him MVP votes in a year when his stat-line read: 0.54 ERA, 1.94 FIP, 2.5 WAR, 9.94 K/9, 2.42 BB/9, 0.13 HR/9, 80.0% GB%, and 14.8% Hard%.
But, as we all saw last year, the post-achilles injury Britton looks thus far a far cry from that elite force in the bullpen. The most striking difference was his command, with Britton often looking frustrated when his pitches missed up in the zone. The uptick in walks, homers, and hard contact are all blemishes on a pitcher whose calling card is pounding the lower half of the strike zone with diving sinkers.
Yes, both his velocity and command looked to be returning as the season progressed. The results followed with more strikeouts, more ground balls, and fewer stressful innings for the burly southpaw. And Britton is only 31, a couple years younger than Ottavino and many of the other relief options that populated the market this year. But the question remains for interested teams like the Yankees: are you going to get the guy who was the best closer in baseball a couple years ago, or the mercurial sinkerballer who donned the pinstripes last year?
As evidenced by the MLBTR projections, both of these guys are going to get paid in a big way. And the numbers clearly show why, with both showing elite production at different times in their career. But both come with clear risks and the potential for disappointment for the team that decides to offer big dollars for them.
As I said before, I think both of these guys are clearly elite relievers that make the Yankees better, and Cashman should absolutely sign at least one, if not the both of them.
That being said, I think Britton is actually the lower risk and higher upside signing. Despite the achilles injury and decline in production in 2018, everything trended in the right direction as he got healthier late in the year. His potential is enormous, as even 75% of the guy he was pre-injury would represent one of the best relievers in baseball.
He’s already done it under the lights at Yankee Stadium, and he’s performed at the highest level in a tough AL East division his whole career. While I would welcome either (or both!) with open arms, bringing Zach Britton back would be a strong next step toward making the Yankees premier contenders in 2019 and beyond.