TAMPA — Zack Britton has watched free agency play out across baseball this winter, like most veteran players, and what he sees almost makes him feel guilty. He has watched a cherished former teammate, Adam Jones, languish without big league offers — “It’s crazy; he’s only 33!” Britton said — and feels a twinge of gratitude that he belongs to the one class of players still getting paid the way they always did, if not better, on the open market: relief pitchers.
“In hindsight,” Britton, a left-handed reliever for the New York Yankees, said Friday of his first trip through free agency, “it ended up working out pretty well for me.”
For months, the perception has persisted across a slower-than-normal free agent market that the Yankees, traditionally the top driver of the marketplace, have essentially sat out free agency this winter. Another perception has persisted that free agents across the board have seen their markets crash.
Both perceptions have elements of truth behind them, but they don’t show the whole picture. To see the whole picture, you must consider Britton and Adam Ottavino — the elite relievers who, in an era in which bullpen dominance has never been more important, formed the foundation of the Yankees’ offseason strategy and who received the bulk of the Yankees’ offseason spending.
The Yankees spent about $140 million on free agents (including ones they retained from their 2018 roster), and nearly half of that total went to Britton (three years, $39 million) and Ottavino (three years, $27 million) — who, combined with holdovers such as Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green, give the Yankees, at least on paper, the best bullpen in the game. Betances, Chapman, Green and Ottavino all rank among the top 15 relievers in strikeouts per nine innings since 2017.
“On paper, it definitely has super potential,” said Ottavino, a 33-year-old Brooklyn native who grew up rooting for the Yankees and who turned last year’s career year for the Colorado Rockies into a free agent windfall. “There are guys on this staff that are like superheroes. I love watching them pitch. Chapman, Dellin — they’re freaks.”
So while the Yankees have stayed away from the biggest-ticket items on the market — infielder Manny Machado (signed with San Diego this week) and outfielder Bryce Harper (still unsigned) — they have spent the past few months spreading their money around to bolster a roster that won 100 games in 2018 but couldn’t get past the division rival Boston Red Sox in either the regular season or playoffs.
In signing Britton and Ottavino, the Yankees strengthened a strength. In picking up veteran shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and second baseman DJ LeMahieu, they gave themselves infield depth as shortstop Didi Gregorius returns from elbow surgery. In re-signing starting pitchers J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia, they retained the bulk of their 2018 rotation (while also adding James Paxton in a trade with Seattle). They also set aside enough money to ink ace Luis Severino to a four-year $40 million extension this month.
“We just diversified,” General Manager Brian Cashman said Friday. “This was a robust market for free agent relievers. There were some high-end guys available. We made a strategic decision to try to go to that well. … If you choose to spend [your money] in a more global fashion, for a more singular, expensive object, it takes away from your flexibility to do other things that are also important. You have to make tough decisions.”
As it happened, Cashman, standing behind the batting cage at George M. Steinbrenner Field on Friday, was speaking at almost the exact same time the Padres, some 2,000 miles away in Peoria, Ariz., were unveiling Machado — to whom they gave the largest free agent contract in baseball history ($300 million over 10 years) — to the media at a news conference.
The Yankees had entertained the notion of pursuing Machado, hosting the 26-year-old superstar and his family and agents at a dinner in Manhattan in December, but never mounted a sustained pursuit. Cashman acknowledged the December 2017 trade for slugger Giancarlo Stanton (whose $325 million extension with the Miami Marlins stands as the largest overall contract in baseball history) had always made it difficult, though not impossible, to envision another $300 million signing this winter — whether it was Machado or Harper, the latter of whom they have not pursued.
“I wouldn’t [call it] closing the door, but when you [allocate] certain amounts in one area, it’s going to take away from other areas of flexibility,” Cashman said. “… We had a significant financial commitment to the team’s that’s already on the field. Every dollar affects someone else’s dollar. We walked the path of diversification, and we feel we’ve improved our club in the present and provided flexibility as we move forward in the future.”
Part of the problem confronting baseball this winter is that several other typically big-spending teams, including the Los Angeles Dodgers, Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants, have taken much the same approach toward free agency as the Yankees.
But with teams shifting emphasis, innings and resources from rotations to bullpens, relievers have been essentially immune to the economic downturn. This winter, of the 34 free agents who have signed multiyear deals through Friday, no fewer than 10 have been relievers. (And Craig Kimbrel almost certainly will be the 11th when he finally signs.) That follows the run on relievers last winter, when 24 of the 55 players who signed multiyear deals were bullpen arms.
“There’s something with the way the analytics are saying that building strong bullpens is the way to go, especially in the postseason,” Britton said. “And let’s be honest: Even the best relievers are costing less than a good No. 3 starter. So you may spend a good amount of money on a bullpen like ours, but if you built a rotation of the same quality, you could be spending twice as much, at least. So it’s been a good last few winters for relievers.”
Added Ottavino: “There’s seven or eight [relievers] on every team. So there’s a lot of [available] spots, and almost every team can upgrade in that area, especially after everyone has seen what good relief pitching can do for you in the playoffs.”
So even if this winter has been a frustrating one for Bryce Harper and plenty of other free agents of lesser pedigree, it has still been a good one for the New York Yankees — and an even better one for Britton and Ottavino.
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