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The complicated Zack Britton Contract

The Yankees have a lot of decision to make this offseason about the players on the current roster with several of them becoming free agents. The first decision, while not exactly a free agent decision, involves Zack Britton’s complicated contract.

The way it works is as follows:

  1. Three days after the World Series the Yankees must tell Britton if they are picking up what is essentially a 2 year club option for $27 million over the next two seasons. If yes, he will be signed with the Yankees for $13.5 million per year through 2022.
  2. If no, Britton has a 1 year player option for $13 million to decide on within 2 days after the Yankees decline his club option. If he picks that up, he is signed for 1 year $13 million.
  3. If Britton declines that, he is a free agent.

This complicated mess is what Scott Boras calls a “swellopt” and is the latest machination of the opt-out clause. The question for the Yankees, and us, to look at here is about #1, namely should the Yankees pick up Britton’s 2 year option?

Reasons to Pick it Up

Britton was fantastic this year, both on and off the field. He appeared in 20 games this season around an IL stint, throwing 19 innings and recording 8 saves while Aroldis Chapman recovered from COVID-19. Most stats for relievers are useless because of small sample size, and for Britton the numbers I look at are his ground ball rate and walk rate because the sinker is his bread and butter. This year, batters pounded that sinker into the ground 72% of the time and he walked batters 9% of the time, which was his lowest as a Yankee.

He also came up huge in the postseason, throwing 5.1 innings in 4 appearances. In Game 5 of the ALDS, he was the first guy out of the pen throwing 1.1 IP of one hit no run ball one day after throwing 1.2 IP of no hit no run ball. He was the Yankees best reliever during the season and in the postseason this year.

His Statcast profile is also encouraging:

He doesn’t allow hard contact and batters struggle to slug off him. As we’ve seen in this postseason, home runs are the name of the game in 2020, and Britton’s best skills is not allowing them. In fact, he didn’t allow a home run all year.

Off the field, Britton was incredible this year. As the Yankees player rep during this crazy season, he was the players’ voice with the union and the Yankee front office while they negotiated if there would be a season at all, what it would look like, and how to keep players safe. He did such a great job with this that Brian Cashman gave him multiple shoutouts during his press conference last week according to Kristie Ackert of the Daily News.

So, great performance and great leadership. Both reasons to keep a guy around.

Reasons Not to Pick it Up

Age: Britton will turn 33 next year, and if the Yankees pick up the option they will be paying him over $13 million per year through his age 34 season. Relievers are as volatile as they come, and with a pitcher like Britton who has struggled with control at times, you’d rather lose him a year too early than too late.

Money: this is the big elephant in the room. Hal Steinbrenner said that the Yankees lost more revenue this year than any other team in the sport according to David Lennon of Newday, and while I don’t believe a word he says about the team’s finances, you can already see him laying the ground work to cut back on spending for next year.  Losing Britton and replacing him with a pre-arb player saves nearly $13 million in payroll. The Rays entire bullpen, which has been dominant this entire year, costs less than that. If pinching pennies is what Hal demands, bullpen is the easiest place to do it with minimal sacrifices to team performance.

What should the team do?

Thus far, Britton has shown no decline, and a pitcher who relies on a turbosinker instead of his four-seam fastball is likely to age well. Based on his performance and importance to the team, I think the Yankees should pick up their 2 year option and Britton and enjoy the security that comes with his groundballs. However…

What will the team do?

…I could easily see them not picking it up because a 1 year deal with Britton is easier for ownership to swallow than a 2 year deal. And if Britton opts out, you can try to sign him back for less or let him walk away. Either way, declining the option actually gives the Yankees more options when it comes to Britton. And in these times with every team crying poor, it’s easy to imagine no team will be willing to sign Britton for more than his current contract which means the Yankees will either get him back on a 1 year deal or have the chance to sign him for less than they would pay him otherwise.

You can contact Rohan on Twitter @rohanarcot20