Zack Britton Auditioning for Teams as Lefty Reliever Market Remains in Holding Pattern

The Cubs probably have one more moderately significant move in them this offseason, most likely a lefty reliever to further legitimize a bullpen that still has a lot of questions at the back end. Several options remain on that front, one of which is former AL Reliever of the Year Zack Britton. The longtime Oriole was frequently mentioned in Cubs trade rumors near the end of his tenure in Baltimore before ending up with the Yankees and sticking in New York for several seasons.

The last two of those campaigns were pretty rough, however, as injuries limited him to just 18.1 innings in 2021 and less than an inning in ’22. Britton’s velo was down noticeably in ’21 as both his walks and home runs allowed jumped up. After being shut down in September for surgery to remove bone chips from his left elbow, doctors discovered a UCL tear that had to be repaired. That limited him to three appearances late last season, over which time he retired just two of the nine batters he faced.

Britton threw for interested parties last week and could be a possibility for a Cubs team that has put so much effort into improving its defense. Since shifting to a relief role in 2014, Britton’s bowling-ball sinker has generated an insane 75.8% groundball rate. That’s easily the highest mark in baseball among 557 pitchers who’ve logged at least 200 innings in that time, but what’s really wild is that only nine others in that group are even above 60% grounders.

I guess we could say his curve has accounted for some of those worm-burners, but Britton’s sinker makes up about 85% of his repertoire. All things considered, he fits the mold of post-prime reliever looking to bounce back that the Cubs always seem to unearth in free agency. The real key is whether he’s got the velo back up to 95-96 mph rather than 92-93.

Cost is also going to be a factor, as there could be a small bidding war for a group of southpaws that also includes Andrew Chafin, Matt Moore, and Will Smith. The Cubs have been linked to the first two and the Mets are reportedly interested in Chafin, which could push his asking price beyond what Ivy tells Jed Hoyer he can acceptably spend. With an estimated $11.6 million remaining below the first luxury tax threshold, Hoyer has precious little wiggle room if he intends to keep a surplus for potential in-season acquisitions.

This feels like a redux of the shortstop situation, albeit on a much smaller scale, in which the Cubs are monitoring the market to see how they can find the best value. Even if they’re willing to exceed the CBT at some point, I don’t think they want to put themselves in a position where most of their remaining flexibility is wiped out by a reliever. As such, I get the sense that they’ll continue to wait back until either Chafin comes down to their level or he and one or two of the others sign elsewhere.

That’s probably not a strategy most folks will get excited about, but it’s what we see from Hoyer time and again. It’s just not in his nature to ambush fastballs with a home run swing. Instead, he’ll patiently work the count until he gets to two strikes and then he’ll choke up with the idea of putting the ball in play for a base hit. Like the roster he’s assembled, that strategy will require stringing enough hits together to push runs across.

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