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The Yankees acquired Zack Britton in a deal with the Baltimore Orioles on July 24, 2018. He made his first appearance in pinstripe two days later and soon became a mainstay in the bullpen and a leading voice in the clubhouse, despite not playing every day.
Since then, Britton has posted an earned run average of 2.14 over 111 appearances. Only four other qualified helpers in the major leagues have a lower ERA during this time span, and one of them is no longer in baseball and another has not played since 2019. Britton has been her best and most reliable helper since arriving in years.
His leadership and reliability made Tuesday a tough day for the Yankees when the team announced that Britton, a left-handed man, was due to undergo arthroscopic surgery in New York in the coming days to remove a bone chip from his limb . Though Yankees manager Aaron Boone said the team can’t come up with a timetable for Britton’s return yet, similar injuries in the past have cost pitchers roughly two or three months.
Britton, who started spring training after an off-season battle with Covid-19, experienced an elbow pain after a recent bullpen session at the Yankees facility in Tampa, Florida. The team therefore sent him for tests, which revealed the source of the discomfort.
During the six-month regular season marathon, missing the first month or two isn’t terrible, especially when the Yankees are talented enough on paper to make the playoffs without Britton. Your goal is post-season glory, not April or May dominance.
But losing the best option off the bullpen, even for a while, from a unit that has been a team strength over the years is still a blow. For the past few seasons, the Yankees have built their pitching sticks around dominant bullpens rather than rotation starts.
Since 2015, the Yankees’ bullpens have been among the most valuable in the major leagues. In 2019, the Yankees overcame many injuries, including to relieve Dellin Betances, and won 103 games thanks to a strong line-up and bullpen, which had the third highest strike rate in baseball.
The Yankees Auxiliary Corps declined during the 60-game season shortened by the pandemic. Chapman, who was 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 weapons in 2019, suddenly weren’t anymore. Ottavino struggled to the point of being used only once in the postseason, and Kahnle only appeared in one game due to surgery on Tommy John.
Britton was tall, however, posting an ERA of 1.89 over 20 games and recording eight saves while advocating for Chapman early on. And at the clubhouse, Britton took on an even bigger role as a representative of the Yankees Players Union for a season like no other.
He organized and communicated with his teammates as the union spent months negotiating the start of the season with the owners. He served as the liaison between the front office and the clubhouse on a number of matters from health and safety protocols to postponements. Twice last season, the Yankees had changed their schedule because of positive cases on other teams and had to mix up to fit into games or exercises.
“He was fantastic in any way, in any shape or in terms of performance, in terms of the leadership he provided,” said Brian Cashman, general manager of Yankees, after the postseason.
It wasn’t the first time Cashman had praised Britton’s work off the field last season. During the off-season, the Yankees triggered an option in Britton’s contract that converted the $ 39 million three-year deal they signed prior to the 2019 season into a $ 53 million four-year deal.
Also over the winter, the ace of the Yankees, Gerrit Cole and Britton, were elected by their peers to a leading players’ union group, the Executive Subcommittee, a key position ahead of the expiration of the collective agreement between Major League Baseball and its players. The negotiations are likely to be controversial.
Last month, as spring training began, Britton’s leadership came to the fore when he spoke frankly about his teammate Domingo German who had returned from an 81-game ban for domestic violence. He gave a brutally honest look at 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 ”- and chose not to run anything back, even if some fans online were critical.
As Britton makes his way back to the hill, the Yankees have to rely more on Luis Cessa, Chad Green, Jonathan Loaisiga and Chapman. When they traded Ottavino for their rival, the Boston Red Sox, over the winter, the Yankees used these savings to sign right-handed Darren O’Day and left-handed Justin Wilson, both strong helpers with years of experience. But to round out their bullpen, the Yankees may lean on less proven options like Nick Nelson, Michael King, Kyle Barraclough, Lucas Luetge, or others.
Bullpens are always important at the start of a season when the starters are not yet ready to dive deep into the games every fifth day. But they could be even more critical this season: The Pitchers failed to amass their usual workload last season and are being asked to go back to normal this year, a leap into the innings that could lead to further 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.