By almost any measure, the Yankees have the best bullpen in baseball. New York ranks first in bullpen ERA (2.75), batting average against (.199), and both strikeouts per nine (11.53) and strikeout percentage (31.5). The team deploys seven relievers with strikeout-per-nine rates above 10, or as many as the Braves, Nationals and Diamondbacks have combined. Unsurprisingly, by Fangraphs WAR, they’re in first by miles (6.7, compared to second-place San Diego’s 5.0), and by Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Average, the group is second only to the Red Sox (3.1 to 5.3). It’s the kind of bullpen that doesn’t need help.
Yet on Tuesday night, it was New York snatching up the best reliever still on the trade market by swinging a four-player deal for Orioles closer Zach Britton. To a fearsome relief corps already featuring Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson and Chad Green will go a two-time All-Star who finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting in 2016 and throws 95 mph from the left side. To the rest of baseball, it probably feels unfair; to everyone else, it may seem unnecessary, particularly given a bigger need in what’s been a beleaguered rotation.
But Brian Cashman’s latest splashy move makes perfect sense given his team’s biggest weakness and ultimate destination. With the starting pitching market thin and weak, why not ensure your rotation never has to worry about outs beyond the fifth inning? And given how important the bullpen has become to the postseason, the Yankees are now set up to have a big advantage come October in above-average arms to throw at lineups.
In Britton, the Yankees have a piece that can help with both. The 30-year-old southpaw is no longer the relief ace who posted a 0.54 ERA and saved 47 games in ’16, thanks to injuries that have limited him to just 53 innings over the last two years. In that span, Britton’s stats have slipped: His ERA is a more mortal 3.06, his walk rate has ballooned, and his strikeout rate is a pedestrian 7.1 per nine. Coming off an Achilles injury suffered in the offseason and facing free agency this winter, his value had dropped sharply from his peak.
Since the beginning of July, though, Britton has looked more like his old self. In his seven innings this month, he hasn’t allowed a run while striking out six, and hasn’t been scored on in his last eight appearances. His velocity has improved, going from 94 mph in his debut back in June to just shy of 96 before the All-Star break. And his bowling ball of a sinker has been unhittable once more, with a batting average against of just .143 in July compared to .276 in June.
All of that suggests a version of Britton that, while not elite, is at least very good. That’s more than enough for the Yankees, who don’t need him to take over the ninth inning; that’s Chapman’s job. Instead, he’ll be slotted into the late-inning mix alongside Robertson and Betances, and also function as a higher-leverage lefty than the underwhelming Chasen Shreve. It’s also worth noting that Britton is a ground-ball specialist in a group that mostly gives up fly balls, making him an ideal candidate to come in when a double play is needed.
Britton’s addition should serve to shorten games even more for the Yankees, thus relieving the pressure on a rotation that, aside from Cy Young contender Luis Severino, is shaky. CC Sabathia has been spectacular at age 38, but he shouldn’t be regularly asked to go through an order a third time. Masahiro Tanaka and Sonny Gray, meanwhile, are Magic 8 Balls: likely to give you a different result, good or bad, every time out. And the fifth starter spot, recently vacated by rookie Domingo German, remains a question mark. With Britton adding an inning or two to the calculus as needed, though, manager Aaron Boone won’t have to push his starters as much, or can more freely turn to his bullpen if anyone falters early.
That will be the strategy in the playoffs, whether or not the Yankees capture the AL East or settle for the Wild Card. Under the departed Joe Girardi, New York’s relievers worked hard last October: The Wild-Card game against the Twins saw the bullpen record 26 outs after Severino exited in the first inning, and in the Division and Championship Series, they racked up 42 and 39% of the innings pitched, respectively. Expect more of the same this time around, especially as this year’s Yankees bullpen should be deeper than last season’s final edition.
Britton’s benefit isn’t just the playoffs or what’s left of the regular season, though. Adding him keeps him away from fellow pennant contenders Boston, Cleveland and Houston, all of which could have used the bullpen help—the Red Sox in particular. Every inning he gives the Yankees is one he’s not providing for the team they’re chasing down for the division—a gap of five games by end of play Tuesday—and that alone is worth the price they paid to get him.
Speaking of which: The cost for Britton was three minor league arms, headed by Dillon Tate, a former top-five draft pick who ranked ninth in the Yankees’ system before the season by MLB.com. Acquired from the Rangers for Carlos Beltran two summers ago, the 24-year-old righty is more promise than production: His numbers at Double A are solid if unspectacular (a 3.38 ERA and 8.2 strikeout-per-nine rate in 15 starts over 82 2/3 innings). Still, he has a fastball that he can hum up to 96 mph and could be an impact bullpen arm for Baltimore down the road if his career as a starter fizzles out. The other two names, Josh Rogers and Cody Carroll, don’t have his upside, though the former offers back-of-the-rotation potential, and the latter is likely good enough to be in a major league bullpen right now.
It’s probably not the haul you would have expected for Britton, but given that he was as good as gone at the end of the season, it’s a good enough return for the O’s (especially compared to the weak package the Mets got in exchange for Jeurys Familia, another formerly elite reliever who’ll be a free agent at year’s end). Then again, the Orioles’ results with pitching prospects resemble Chernobyl’s safety record, so don’t be surprised if the next you hear of Tate and his compatriots is a news blurb featuring the words “shoulder soreness” and “offseason surgery.”
Even with Britton in the fold, the Yankees probably aren’t done. The team will almost certainly add a starter in the week left before the deadline, and maybe more help at other spots of need. But with Britton, New York took its biggest strength and made it even better at a reasonable cost.