In 2016, Zach Britton established himself as one of the best relief pitchers in Major League Baseball. In his third season as the Baltimore Orioles’ closer, Britton had a career year. He converted all 47 of his save oppurtunities, while striking out 74 in 67 innings. On top of that, he had an insane 0.54 ERA as well as an outstanding 0.84 WHIP.
With numbers like that, one would imagine the Baltimore Orioles would be running to lock their closer up on a long term deal, keeping him in town for years to come. But history would suggest otherwise, and at the end of the winter, Britton may even find himself in a completely different uniform.
Let’s take a stroll back in time, to three winters ago. Back in 2013, the Orioles had another big name closer by the name of Jim Johnson. In 2012, Johnson led the Majors with 51 saves. Then in 2013, the star reliever saved 50 more games, tying Craig Kimbrel for the Major League lead in saves for the season. Then on December 3rd, 2013, Baltimore shipped Johnson out to the Oakland A’s, in exchange for young second baseman Jemile Weeks, and a player to be named later.
The primary reason for the move, the 30 year old’s salary was on the rise thanks to his impressive save totals and his arbitration status. He would go on to make 10 million dollars in the 2014 season (it had been projected to be about 10.8 at the time of the trade). So the move was clearly viewed as a salary dump on the part of the Orioles. Given they had an impressive young arm in the form of Britton in line to take over the role, the team saw it as a chance to save 10 million dollars without losing out on the back-end of their pen.
The move clearly worked in the Orioles favor too. Johnson would go on to pitch to a 7.09 ERA between the A’s and Detroit Tigers in 2014. He has since caught on with the Atlanta Braves, where he converted 20 of 23 saves in 2016. Meanwhile, Britton saved 37 of 41 in 2014. The following two seasons he would save 36 and 47 games respectively.
That brings us back to Britton this winter. Britton is currently in his arbitration years, just like Johnson was back in December of 2013. Britton has two more years left of arbitration, and after making just under seven million dollars in 2016, he is projected to make 11.4 million in 2017. Sound familiar?
To add to the similarities to Johnson back in 2013, Baltimore has a very capable backup already in the fold. His name is Brad Brach, and he is coming off an All-Star season. Brach had 24 holds in 2016, along with 92 strikeouts in 79, a 2.05 ERA and 1.04 WHIP. And he is projected to make just under three million in this coming season.
So when looking at things from that perspective, it certainly is conceivable that club could move Britton just like they did Johnson just three seasons ago. Teams would surely pay a nice price to acquire a man of Britton’s talent. But despite all of this, I still say it is a long shot any form of trade actually occurs. Here is why.
First things first, Johnson had shown signs of decline before his trade. Even though he tied for the lead in saves in 2013, he still blew nine chances. So nearly one out of every six times he was on for a save, he did not come away with one. He also had an ERA close to three that season, which is not ideal for a closer. Finally, he has never been a strikeout pitcher, and those type of arms typically fall off faster in high leverage situations.
Britton on the other hand, shares none of those similarities. He appears to be on the rise, as opposed to on the decline. There is no reason to expect he is going to pitch to a seven ERA in 2017. He did not blow a single save in 2016, and you simply cannot get more reliable than that. His ERA was nearly a half a run per nine, meaning he gave up only one run per every 18 games he pitched in on average. Finally, he gets his strikeouts, unlike Johnson.
Now let’s factor in the market for relievers this winter. Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon are all free agents this winter. If any of those men can be had for a similar salary to Britton, a team is going to favor the free agent, as they pay the same price money wise, but do not have to give up any players. Then we look at Wade Davis, who will be on the trade market at a cheaper salary. Former top closer Greg Holland is also out on the free agent market, meaning this is a very crowded field. Trying to dangle Britton now means teams may not put their best offer forward.
So while there are many similarities to Johnson, there are plenty of reasons to think a trade is not coming this winter for the Orioles best reliever. Just do not be surprised if you hear his name out on the market however. The Orioles are always looking for a way to save a little money, meaning a Britton deal is not impossible thanks to his rising price tag. But with the competitive market paired with the fact that Britton is not on the decline, it would make sense for Baltimore to wait this one out. Orioles fans want to see Britton, and despite his increasing salary, they should still be able to enjoy him closing out Orioles’ games in 2017.