The Pros and Cons of Moving Orioles Closer Zach Britton
To say the Orioles are in a tricky spot with their roster this offseason is quite the understatement. They have roughly $123 million committed to next season’s payroll via Baseball Prospectus’ Cot’s Contracts, and aren’t particularly close to contending after coming down from a last-place finish in the AL East.
It gets tougher.
There’s possibly a bit of wiggle room in the budget if they can get back near last season’s beginning number (roughly $164 million) or the mark they ended 2016 with ($169 million), or even where they started 2016, which was $147 million. The trouble is, all the players who will make this team markedly better are going to require multi-year deals.
Where this gets thorny is that two of Baltimore’s best players are eligible for free agency after this coming season: Manny Machado and Zach Britton. In fact, technically it’s four of the team’s best players, as both Adam Jones and Brad Brach are slated to hit the free market after 2018 as well.
The big-ticket items inked long-term on this team are Chris Davis ($21 million and change through 2022), Darren O’Day ($18 million combined over this year and next) and Mark Trumbo ($26 million over next two years).
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That’s not exactly much of a core to build around, and bringing in free agents from this year’s bunch — not exactly a bumper crop, especially when compared to next year — over the long haul might not move the needle far enough to make sense.
It’s not hard to debate the merits of signing Machado long-term, and a compelling case could probably be made for signing Jones, but it gets much, much murkier regarding Britton — and has gotten more so over the last year.
The Orioles already dipped their toes on the water regarding a Britton deal last season with teams like the Houston Astros getting involved before ultimately passing, and the time is now right to ask what exactly the pros and cons would be of moving the lefty right now, a full year in advance of his potentially big free-agency payday.
On the surface, it would appear to be selling low on an absolutely terrific reliever, and that’s not necessarily the wrong takeaway here.
Over the three years preceding Britton’s down year in 2017, he was absolutely brilliant. He was the Jake Arrieta who was shifted to the bullpen rather than getting away and becoming a Cy Young winner. Britton posted a 1.38 ERA over those 209 innings, inducing grounder after grounder with a heavy, boring sinker that pushed him over a strikeout per inning, under a baserunner per inning and with an ERA+ encroaching on 300 (299).
Last year was a significant step back, and he battled issues with not only his knee but also his flexor tendon. On the field, he was limited to 38 appearances with a 2.89 ERA (3.40 FIP), a 1.53 WHIP, 7.0 strikeouts per nine and a BB/9 rate of 4.3.
In other words, that all sort of adds up to a guy a team would be selling low on, right? That has to be the worry of not only the casual fan of the team but also the brass, because of not only how recently he’s been good but flat out how great he was when he was at his best.
But it gets complicated with Britton eligible for arbitration for the final time, and likely due a raise from the $11.4 million he made last season. MLBTradeRumors projects a modest raise for Britton up to $12.2 million. That’s certainly not chump change for a team with myriad issues that loom larger than at closer. That’s also a position that was filled capably by Brach last season and in theory could be by Mychal Givens or possibly Darren O’Day moving forward if the need arose.
That’s not to say that a bullpen can remain at the status quo simply because a closer can be capably replaced. The 2017 Orioles proved that, as one of the best units in the game slumped to the 12th-best ERA (3.93) with numbers down all across the board. That, of course, wasn’t all Britton being gone, but we just don’t want to paper over the idea that getting over losing him was as easy as having Brach fill in.
Back to the selling low thing.
The risk there that the Orioles have to stomach is that he may never give them the chance to sell high — or any higher than right now. Even if it was just one of the injuries incurred — and not the two he had last year — this would still be true, but the second injury mucks things up even more.
Holding onto Britton only to see his value crater would be even more detrimental to an Orioles team in desperate need of making a decision. That decision, on the large scale, is whether to part it out and start over or make moves for one last run at this thing. If the Orioles take another run at it and Britton is waylaid by injuries or simply doesn’t pitch well, he’s an untradeable asset — on a team clutching it’s last chance, besides — who’ll walk for nothing after next season, because a qualifying offer is too expensive to offer a damaged-goods closer two years from his last successful season.
The cons to trading Britton are pretty obvious. Moving him at suboptimal value is never good for any organization, but neither is holding onto a depreciating asset. Moving him only to see him blow up for another team (in a good way) who can then QO him for compensation next offseason would certainly hurt — especially if the compensation returned was more valuable than whatever the Orioles get in a possible move — and again, it’d be doubly so since the acquiring team also got good value from him on the mound.
But if the idea is to trade him with the most potential value returned, moving him now when teams have assets to burn, 40-man spots open and also the potential to have a year of Britton with — a. an exclusive negotiating window and b. the potential to QO him to get a return back on that investment — probably means that now is the right time.
And frankly, if it wasn’t, would the Orioles have considered moving him this summer? It seems clear they’re already at least thinking about life after the lefty.
What do you think? Would you move Britton now?
Warne is a Minnesota Twins beat reporter for 105 The Ticket's Cold Omaha website as well as a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. He also contributes to FanGraphs / RotoGraphs.