There are 29 MLB teams who would like to have Zach Britton be their closer. Only the Orioles get to have him, or at least for the next two seasons. If the Orioles decided to trade Britton, bids for his services would be high based on recent trades involving relievers on or below Britton’s tier.
This fact, combined with Britton’s escalating salary estimated at over $10 million for 2017 and declining service time remaining to the Orioles, makes the idea of trading Britton a tempting one to at least consider. However, the Orioles should not trade Britton for one very simple reason. Only a loser team would feel that it must trade Zach Britton. The Orioles aren’t losers any more.
Orioles fans are not strangers to having the team be a loser team that needs to do things like trade its best players to reload with prospects. There’s no doubt that the pre-2008 season trades of Erik Bedard and Miguel Tejada were part of what eventually set the franchise on a new, winning path.
Those Orioles were going to be bad with Bedard and Tejada and they would be bad without them, just with more hope for the future. Eventually, Adam Jones and Chris Tillman, part of that Bedard haul, became what the Orioles hoped and now both of those players have been on three postseason-bound O’s teams in the past five seasons. That’s what a bad team should do to try to get better.
Britton’s value to other teams IS tempting
We have moved beyond those days. Yes, there have been some major hauls for elite relievers over the past calendar year. The Padres got two of MLB.com’s top 100 prospects when they traded two years Craig Kimbrel to the Red Sox. The Yankees got a pair of top 100 prospects from the Indians for 2.5 years of Andrew Miller and another one from the Cubs for a half-season of Aroldis Chapman.
They were eye-popping returns, and should seem that way even more to a team like the Orioles, whose farm system is barren of both close-to-MLB help and future star power.
The O’s have basically no outfield prospects in the system. The Yankees got #15 prospect Clint Frazier for Miller. He could play center field for them next year. Manuel Margot (#26 prospect, acquired by Padres for Kimbrel) could do the same in San Diego.
Perhaps you’d rather think about the Orioles actually having an infield prospect again instead? Well, the Yankees got one of them too, shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres (#17) from the Cubs, who could arrive in 2018. Or do you like pitching prospects? They got one of them as well, for Miller: lefty starter prospect Justus Sheffield (#78).
The Orioles need all kinds of prospects right now. Dangling two years of Britton to the good reliever-deprived teams dreaming of 2017 contention would definitely help them fill some holes in their system and even on their MLB roster.
There are a number of otherwise-good teams - even ones who made it into the postseason - whose 2016 hopes were torpedoed by a squad of jabronis in the bullpen. Miller’s 2016 postseason performance may very well further inflate what teams could be willing to pay at the top end of the reliever market. Add a guy who’s that good to a team that’s already good and you can stomp two of the most prolific AL offenses on the way to the World Series.
Britton is much better than the average reliever
One of the ideas that has been accepted as a truism in modern baseball analysis is an idea that relievers are fungible and therefore they should not be overpaid or overvalued. The idea being, particularly for a closer, that you can throw most already-decent relievers out there in the ninth inning, needing just three outs to hold a 1-3 run lead, and they will be successful a lot of the time. So why pay a premium for that?
The Orioles seemed to be believers in this idea when they traded Jim Johnson after back-to-back 50+ save seasons because his salary was going to be $10 million the next year. Saves get expensive in arbitration, as they will be getting for Britton for the 2017 season. That was the right decision to make at that time.
Still, what applied for Johnson shouldn’t also apply to Britton. Although Johnson had the gaudy save totals and respectable ground ball numbers, he never approached the level of dominance that Britton has pulled off over the last three seasons.
Not that any pitcher’s ERA tells a full story about his performance, but with that said, it’s still striking to see that when you add up Britton’s ERA for the past two seasons (1.92 and 0.54) you get a number that’s still lower than the lowest ERA Johnson had as an Oriole - the 2.49 he picked up while saving 51 games in 2012.
You can compare pretty much any other stat that you want to see that Britton is on another plane compared to Johnson. Strikeout rate? Johnson struck out 15.2% of batters in his 51 save season. Britton just struck out 29.1% of batters he faced in 2016. Ground ball rate? We all thought that the 62.3% rate Johnson posted in 2012 was impressive... at least until Britton’s 80% from this season came along.
A reliever like Johnson is definitely fungible. A reliever like Britton is not. That’s what would make him valuable to other teams, but it’s what also makes him indispensable to a good Orioles team that wants to do even better next season.
Exactly how valuable Britton is to the Orioles, or in general, is something that can and will be debated when the season is over and the Cy Young voting results are announced.
Next season’s Orioles need Britton more than prospects
What’s undeniable is that the Orioles just won 89 games and qualified for the postseason despite having one of the worst starting rotations in all of baseball. There are many players on the team who contributed to that. Britton’s role can’t be underestimated.
Again, not that saves are the sole arbiter of quality, but you don’t get a perfect 47/47 in save opportunities all by accident or by luck. You don’t get a 0.54 ERA all by luck. Britton brought a lot of skill to bear to get those outcomes.
Even the legendary Mariano Rivera never posted an ERA below 1.38 in a season, and for his career, he converted 89% of save opportunities. If Britton did that this year, he would have had five blown saves and the Orioles probably wouldn’t have been in the postseason at all.
Any discussion of the idea that the Orioles might “have” to trade Britton as his salary hits an estimated $11.4 million for 2017 is ridiculous. Losers trade players who are getting expensive, like when Oakland traded Josh Donaldson and he went on to win the AL MVP the very next season. Thanks for trading that horrible haircut into our division, jerks.
The Orioles don’t have an infinite number of dollars to plow into their payroll, but they can be sure that if Britton pitches like he’s done in any of the last three seasons, he’ll more than earn his keep. The team will be spending $11 million for far worse reasons next year, like the 2017 salary of Yovani Gallardo.
It’s not something that’s fun to talk about, but there’s a very real chance that either next season or the one after that will represent the O’s last shot at glory for a while.
Key players like Tillman and J.J. Hardy will be free agents after next year if nothing changes. A year beyond that will see Manny Machado and Britton himself hit the free agent market, as well as Jones. There’s no winning Orioles team in the near future without those guys.
Nothing about the future is guaranteed. The Orioles have the core of a group of players who’ve led them to five straight non-losing seasons and three trips to the playoffs. They need to give it one more good run before everyone is gone.
If things don’t go as planned in 2017 - which they haven’t done in the last couple of odd years for the O’s - then sure, at the trade deadline, it’s time to revisit trading Britton or whoever else to reload for the future.
Right now, though, any discussion of trading Britton is loser talk. Those days are gone now - hopefully for good, or at least for a while. The Orioles need Britton much more than they “need” to trade him.