Should the Yankees bring back Zach Britton or David Robertson… or both?
There’s no easy way to answer this question. Or, rather, there’s no one answer. The surrounding factors change, creating different situations and, as such, different fits -- both from a financial and from a team standpoint. A case can be made to bring back either of these free agents, or both of them, or… neither. But it’s almost impossible to make a blanket answer that fits in every possible scenario.
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We’d be here all day (or for over 5,000 words, and no one wants to read that many details) if I were to review every possible Yankees 2019 scenario; between lineups, starting pitching rotations and the bullpen, who is injured (sigh, Didi), who may or may not retire after the 2019 season (looking at you C.C.), which contracts are up, who may or may not be joining the Yankees in 2019 (especially those with the initials M.M. and B.H.)… it would be impossible to come up with every combination of players, and which ones would fit best with either Zach Britton or David Robertson. So, I’m going to attempt to scratch the most obvious surfaces and then (hopefully) determine a winner.
If the Yankees sign both Harper and Machado, Hal Steinbrenner would end up shelling out a cool $750 million to cover the cost of both free agents’ salaries. And they have the money. They were already under the luxury tax threshold in the 2018 season, and if they go over the threshold in 2019, their penalty decreases from 50 percent to 20 percent -- thanks to a now track record of staying under the threshold. It’s like a reward, except, in baseball tax terms, they call it a “reset.”
So, assuming that the combined $750 million needed for both Harper and Machado is, in fact, on the table, and the salaries of Britton and Robertson are also both still in the mix, even if this situation brought the Yankees over the luxury tax threshold… it wouldn’t be as big of a deal as it would have been when the penalty stood at 50 percent.
Even if, of course, the Yankees do choose to stay under that luxury tax threshold and save some money, there are other free agents aside from both Britton and Robertson who can be eliminated from the payroll. For one, Lance Lynn didn’t have a phenomenal showing in the 2018 season, and the excuse of “he was only there for half the year” can’t even really be used as a defense. His regular season ERA, both before and after he came to the Yankees, came in at 4.77. He pitched just 2.1 IP in the postseason, which is less than excellent for appearing in two games. Eliminating Lynn also frees up a spot on the starting rotation, allowing for the maybe return of Sonny Gray (I know, I know, just keeping options open) or to sign another starting pitcher (now that’s more like it). Bringing in another starting pitcher (paging Dallas Keuchel to New York, paging Dallas Keuchel to New York) while still signing Harper and Machado and eliminating Lynn’s $12 million salary doesn’t exactly solve the luxury tax problem, however.
But, if the Yankees eliminate -- or not eliminate -- Lynn in addition to other free agents, that just might solve the problem. Adeiny Hechavarria’s $5.9 million salary is not an ideal choice -- between his comparatively low ticket salary, his defensive play and the fact that he plays shortstop (what with the absence of Didi Gregorius looming on the 2019 horizon), it’s safe to say the Yankees need him.
As much as it pains me to propose this idea, removing the $10 million salary of C.C. Sabathia, in the knowledge that he cannot go as deep into innings as he used to be able to, and the fact that he’s been contemplating retirement anyway… it is a better option than eliminating Hechavarria. Also, let’s not forget that Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and Shane Robinson are also all free agents. J.A. Happ is as well, but, the need for consistent starting pitching is too great to even consider eliminating him in such a scenario.
But let’s move away from the checkbook, and from the predictions of who will stay, who will go and who will join the Yankees’ crusade in 2019… and look at both of these players, as well as how they fit with the other current players.
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Individually, both Britton and Robertson had stellar seasons in 2018. Robertson appeared in 69 regular season games, struck out 91 and clocked an ERA of 3.23. While he only pitched 3.2 IP in the postseason, that 3.2 IP came out to three game appearances, during which he allowed zero runs. Britton’s ERA, both before and after he arrived in the Bronx, came in at 3.10. He struck out 34 over 40.2 IP. While his postseason performance was considerably mediocre, allowing five hits and three runs over 5.0 IP, it was far from a disaster when solely looking at stats (and not necessarily game situations). The performance can even be chalked up to “first postseason in New York,” since it was not great, but not awful. It’s an opportunity for Britton to learn what the pressure outside of Baltimore is like. Also, let’s not forget that Britton came to New York not even a year removed from surgery to repair his Achilles tendon.
But perhaps more importantly, the Yankees’ bullpen, in 2018, was arguably its greatest strength. Its offense was inconsistent, hitting more home runs than any other team in MLB while failing to capitalize on situational offense, and would find itself on winning streaks only to be followed-up by dead bat losing streaks. The starting rotation… yeah, let’s not go there. The bullpen was the real MVP of the 2018 season. It faced a series of personnel changes and arrivals and departures of minor leaguers and injuries (not the least of which included Aroldis Chapman) and they still held it down in clutch situations. It did its job: it relieved a parade of exhausted starting pitchers.
Of course, every relief pitcher didn’t have a chance to appear in every game, and no one pitcher was perfect in every appearance. But… an argument can be made for the idea that the bullpen really cannot afford any major changes in the 2019 season in order to continue its streak of consistency. In order words… both Britton and Robertson should make a return.
It’s safe to say that the members of the Yankees bullpen feed off each other in order to create the well-oiled machine that they’ve collectively become. They’ve found a system that works, and it involves both Britton and Robertson. They’ve faced many changes, sure, but one more and it could lead to potential disaster. Why test it? If it isn’t broken, why fix it? The bullpen is the glue that kept this team together in 2018.
So, can I declare a winner? Yes. Two winners. Both Robertson and Britton need to stay in the Bronx in 2019. The money aspect can be resolved -- not to go off on another tangent, but it can most definitely be solved if only Harper or Machado is signed, and even more so if neither slugger joins the squad. But for the sake of its consistency, the bullpen should stay as is as much as can be allowed. Britton and Robertson are both part of that consistency.
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