Tuesday, June 15, 2021

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Zack Britton’s Injury Forces the Yankees to Get Creative

A reliable lefty and a vocal leader, Britton has been the team’s rock since his arrival. Elbow surgery has put him out indefinitely.

The Yankees acquired Zack Britton in a trade with the Baltimore Orioles on July 24, 2018. Two days later, he made his first appearance in pinstripes, and soon became a mainstay in the bullpen and a leading voice in the clubhouse despite not playing every day.

Since then, Britton has logged a 2.14 earned run average over 111 appearances. Only four other qualified relievers in the major leagues have a lower E.R.A. in that span: One of them is no longer in baseball, and another hasn’t pitched since 2019. And on the Yankees, a team that has dealt with numerous injuries over the years, Britton has been their best and most reliable reliever since his arrival.

His leadership and his dependability made Tuesday a hard day for the Yankees, as the team announced that Britton, a left-hander, would undergo arthroscopic surgery in New York to remove a bone chip from his throwing elbow. Although Manager Aaron Boone said the team could not yet provide a timetable for Britton’s return, similar injuries have cost pitchers two or three months.

Britton, who was easing into spring training after a bout with Covid-19 in the off-season, felt soreness in his elbow after a recent bullpen session at the Yankees’ facility in Tampa, Fla., so the team sent him for tests, which revealed the source of the discomfort.

During the six-month marathon of the regular season, missing the first month or two isn’t terrible, particularly when the Yankees are talented enough on paper to reach the playoffs without Britton. Their sights are set on postseason glory, not on April or May dominance.

But losing the best option out of the bullpen, even for a bit, from a unit that has been a team strength over the years, is still a blow. In recent seasons, the Yankees have built their pitching staffs around dominant bullpens rather than starting rotations.

Since 2015, Yankees’ bullpens have been among the most valuable in the major leagues. In 2019, the Yankees overcame many injuries, including to the relief stalwart Dellin Betances, and won 103 games thanks to a powerful lineup and a bullpen that had the third highest strikeout rate in baseball.

During the pandemic-shortened 60-game 2020 season, the relief corps regressed. Aroldis Chapman, the closer, missed the first three weeks because he tested positive for the coronavirus before the season. Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle, who had been reliable arms in 2019, suddenly weren’t. Ottavino struggled to the point that he was used just once during the postseason, and Kahnle appeared in only one game because of Tommy John surgery.

Britton, though, stood tall, posting a 1.89 E.R.A. over 20 games and recording eight saves while filling in for Chapman early on. And in the clubhouse during a season unlike any other, Britton took on an even larger role as the team’s players’ union representative.

He organized and communicated with his teammates as the union negotiated with owners over months about the start of the season. He served as a liaison between the front office and the clubhouse on a range of matters, from the health and safety protocols to postponements. Twice last season, the Yankees had their schedule upended because of positive cases on other teams and had to scramble to fit in games or practices.

The Yankees still have reliable arms in the bullpen like Aroldis Chapman and Chad Green. But they will be without Britton indefinitely, and another highly paid reliever, Adam Ottavino, was traded to Boston.
Kim Klement/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

“He was fantastic in every way, shape or form in terms of performance, in terms of the leadership he provided,” General Manager Brian Cashman said after the postseason.

It wasn’t the first time Cashman had praised Britton’s work off the field last season. And over the off-season, the Yankees triggered an option in Britton’s contract that turned the three-year, $39 million pact they signed him to before the 2019 season into a four-year, $53 million deal.

Also over the winter, the Yankees ace Gerrit Cole and Britton were elected by their peers to a leading players’ union group, the executive subcommittee — a key position before the Dec. 1 expiration of the collective bargaining agreement between Major League Baseball and its players. Negotiations are expected to be contentious.

Last month, as spring training was beginning, Britton’s leadership came to the forefront when he spoke frankly about his teammate Domingo German returning from an 81-game suspension for domestic violence. He gave a brutally honest view of his feelings about the situation — “I don’t agree with what he did. I don’t think it has any place in the game or off the field at all” — and chose not to walk anything back even when some fans were critical online.

While Britton works his way back to the mound, the Yankees will have to lean more on Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chapman. When they traded Ottavino to their rival, the Boston Red Sox, over the winter, the Yankees used those savings to help sign the right-handed sidearmer Darren O’Day and the left-hander Justin Wilson, both stout relievers with long track records. But to round out their bullpen the Yankees may be leaning on less proven options like Nick Nelson, Michael King, Kyle Barraclough, Lucas Luetge or others.

Relievers are important early in a season when starters aren’t yet conditioned to pitch deep into games every fifth day. But they could be even more critical this season: Pitchers didn’t amass their usual workloads last season and will be asked to ramp up to normal this year, a jump in innings that could lead to more injuries.

Boone has said the Yankees will be creative early on, which could include using a six-man rotation. Britton’s absence will put even more pressure on Boone’s creativity.

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