If you had told me one year ago that Zach Britton could be a potential trade candidate this year, my jaw would have dropped straight to the ground.
I don’t think this would have happened necessarily because I thought the Orioles would be a contender in 2017; rather, I think I would have started drooling over Baltimore’s potential return. In today’s game, relief pitching is costly. Elite relief pitching can net $80 million deals in free agency like Aroldis Chapman did, and elite relief pitching can draw a four-prospect return (including Clint Frazier) in a trade like Andrew Miller did.
A year ago, Britton would have netted multiple blue-chip prospects. He was in the midst of a year for the century — shown via his fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting as a reliever. Plus, he is under contract through the 2018 season, which would have given teams two-and-a-half seasons of team control.
Here are now. It’s one year later. Britton still has lots of value as a trade candidate. He’s still not a rental, and he could fill a need that many contending teams have.
But, unfortunately for the Orioles, a lot has changed.
As my colleague Anthony Rescan mentioned yesterday, Britton’s velocity is dropping. He’s throwing fewer strikes and generating fewer whiffs with his sinker, his best and most common pitch. As a result, his strikeout rate, which was up at 29.1 percent last season, has dropped to just 15.3 percent. His walk rate, too, is significantly worse, jumping over 2 1⁄2 percentage points from 7.1 percent to 9.7 percent.
And this has come in just 16 innings pitched. Britton essentially missed two months of this season with a forearm strain, which is often the predecessor to UCL damage. Lucky for him and the O’s, Britton’s elbow was found to be okay. Even still, though, teams are nervous about acquiring Britton at the deadline, as Joel Sherman of the New York Post reports:
“Britton is such a red flag for me,” said a scout from a team that badly wants to add top-flight relief. “Your medical people are going to earn every dollar if you agree to a trade for him. He is just not consistent. I am not sure if it is elbow or the fact that he missed two months and needs time to get consistent.”
“But what scares me is the Orioles gave him all the time he needed to get healthy, gave him plenty of rehab outings and I am watching a guy who just pounded the bottom of the strike zone last year and now the ball is spraying all over the place too often.”
However, one top executive for a team that also wants to add a big-time reliever said, “His salary is only going to climb (for 2018) and if he gets hurt in the next two months, which is a serious consideration, you probably have to non-tender him and not have him next year.”
That quote doesn’t sound too promising about Britton’s trade market. His injury concerns are serious enough that teams may want to look in a different direction, acquiring Brad Hand, Pat Neshek or Addison Reed, all of whom are inferior options to Britton at his best but potentially more reliable. (Reed, for one, is a great option for relief-hungry teams, as I recently wrote.)
In reality, there are only two options for the Orioles: trade him or keep him. And honestly, I’m not sure which is more likely, considering that the team is still within four games of a postseason spot and due to all the aforementioned factors. But let’s take a quick look at both.
Britton’s value is low. The relief market is deep. That is not good.
What’s in the Orioles’ favor here? An acquiring team has to pay the prospect price knowing that they’ll be getting him for two pennant races as opposed to just one. However, his salary will still escalate through arbitration, and the Orioles, as a result, would not be able to kick in any future salary relief. If he can’t stay healthy, his future club may have to consider non-tendering him, as the executive mentioned to Sherman.
To deal him, the Orioles need Britton to string together a few strong performances. He needs to build as much value as he can before the July 31 deadline. Thus far, it hasn’t looked good. Britton has a 5.14 ERA and an underwhelming 4:3 strikeout-to-walk rate in his seven innings since returning from injury. In fact, Britton was better before he went on the disabled list than he has been after. In his most recent outing — July 20 against Texas — he was being hit around pretty hard.
Some team could still pay a solid price for Britton, but many still seem to be wary of his health, really hurting the Orioles’ chance to reboot their system by trading him alone. I wonder if the team would ever consider dealing Britton in combination with another one of their relievers like Brad Brach, similar to how the Athletics dealt both Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson to the Nationals. A second piece could provide enough health cushion that teams may be more willing to give up higher quality prospects.
The second scenario here is keeping Britton. Of course, there are pluses and minuses to this option too.
First, keeping Britton could allow him to completely rebuild his value before next year’s trade deadline. The million dollar question is, though: would a fully healthy Britton with just a half-season of team control generate a better return than a partially injured Britton with a year-and-a-half? It’s a loaded question that I’m not necessarily sure the answer to.
We saw the return that the Tigers got for J.D. Martinez — arguably the best player on the market — from the Diamondbacks as a rental. Most agreed that it was subpar on paper. I am comparing apples to oranges here, and there would be plenty of extenuating circumstances, like the quality of talent on the relief market, as well as the amount of teams who need relief pitching. One thing is for certain: Any contending team would love to add a good Britton regardless of how good their bullpen is coming in. That’s why we see the Dodgers involved in his 2017 sweepstakes. There definitely would be suitors.
What if the Orioles think they can contend, either this year or next? They would obviously much rather have Britton than not, as he can nail down important games for them down the stretch much like he did just last year. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I just consider that unlikely.
A nightmare scenario does exist, and that is if Britton gets injured or never fully recovers. If he does ultimately tear his UCL or never regains the velocity that he lost, Britton may never see his value recuperate. That would not be ideal for the Orioles, who have a poor farm system and need just any talent they can get.
With all that considered, if I’m general manager Dan Duquette, I am trading Zach Britton for the best deal before 4 p.m. on July 31, 2017.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.