This offseason figures to be one of the most high-priced and exciting free agent affairs in the league’s long history – and the Chicago Cubs could very well be at the heart of it all (LOL … that might not be true anymore). In any case, these players present possible fits for the Cubs, at a range of potential costs, positions, and talent levels.
Potential Target: Zach Britton, Age 30
Performance in 2018
Zach Britton’s overall performance in 2018 is a bit of a tough nut to crack. After making his debut following a recovery from an Achilles injury, he got pretty solid results, but had some obviously ugly peripherals, some lucky bounces, and some bad luck with homers.
The offseason injury is the reason for the low inning total, but I don’t think he can use that to explain his underlying performance (or at least, it would be a red flag to do so). Because while the ERA looks solid, his FIP paints a much different picture, particularly as it relates to balls and strikes.
In 2018, Britton’s 20.1% strikeout rate was technically above his career average (19.9%), but it was nowhere near the levels he put up in 2014-2016 when he first moved to the bullpen, and his 12.4% walk rate was the worst mark of his career. Given how much frustration Cubs fans have had with wild relievers during the past two seasons, that alone might justifiably scare some people off.
Less scary, but still concerning: his usually *elite* contact management disappeared last season, as he began drifting somewhat closer to the league averages. He was still solidly better than most in this department, mind you, but he just wasn’t elite, like he had been in the past.
The one way he definitely DID NOT disappoint in 2018, however, was his ground ball rate. That 73.0% mark might be a little lower than the numbers he posted in his best seasons, but oh boy is it still really, really good. In fact, he led the league in ground ball rate among relievers with at least 40 IP. For context, if you’re putting up a 50+% ground ball rate, that’s dang good.
The bad news, however, is that it looks to me like he earned the drop in strand rate thanks to his worsening K/BB ratio, but didn’t necessarily earn the HUGE drop in BABIP (.241 last season, .287 for his career) thanks to an uptick in hard contact.
I will say, however, that even accounting for the extra hard contact, Britton probably didn’t deserve an apparently flukey 25.0% HR/FB ratio. That’s the third highest rate in baseball this season, despite the fact that his hard-contact ranked among the top-30. I’d expect some huge positive regression in that department next season. I wish I had a stronger narrative thread here, but the truth remains: his season is/was difficult to evaluate on the numbers, alone.
Performance Before 2018
Interestingly, a lot of what I just stated can be applied – in broad strokes – to his 2017 season, too. That year, Britton was also limited by injuries, but delivered some solid results (2.89 ERA) with lagging peripherals (3.40), headlined by a low strikeout rate (18.0%) and an uncharacteristically high walk rate (11.2%). BUT BEFORE THAT … he was lights out.
Britton, like other lefty Cubs target Andrew Miller, has recently been one of the most elite relievers in baseball. From 2014-2016, he was among the top-10 in innings pitched (209.0), WAR (5.6), and batting average against (.153), while leading in ground ball rate (77.9%), soft contact (31.9%), and hard contact (18.5%).
He was second in ERA (1.38), tucked between two former Cubs closers, Wade Davis and Aroldis Chapman, who was, himself, just barely ahead of Andrew Miller.
Indeed, Britton and Miller have a lot in common – former left-handed relief aces, converted from starters, whose elite status has waned in the last year or so thanks, in part, to some unexpected injuries – but they offer two completely different approaches to the game. Miller is more of a strikeout artist and Britton is more of a contact manager. Think … Yu Darvish vs. Kyle Hendricks. The Cubs may very well be interested in both guys (they clearly have been in the past), but it would have to be for different reasons.
Also of random note: Britton finished FOURTH in the Cy Young voting back in 2016.
Projection for 2019 and Beyond
Projecting Britton seems, to me, an even tougher task than most. He’s still quite young and not that far removed from being at the top of his game. On one hand, you could say the injuries are behind him so he should be ready to resume his excellence, while on the other hand you might wonder whether the damage has already been done (or maybe he’s simply past his prime).
Weirdly, Steamer is projecting only 25.0 innings for Britton next season, but they appear to be quality innings in nature: 3.01 ERA (3.24 FIP). I’m willing to bet he pitches more than 25.0 innings in 2018, but we’ll get into his injury stuff in just a moment.
Possible Contract/Existing Rumors
The Cubs would be among many, many teams interested in Britton, and have been attached to him for a good long while, including once already this offseason.
It’s worth noting that the Cubs reportedly tried to trade for Britton during the 2017 season and again during the offseason before the 2018 season. Clearly they like something about him (I’m guessing it’s the fact that he’s a contact manager (they always go after those guys)), so keep that in mind.
In 2012, Britton was placed on the 60-Day DL with a left-shoulder impingement.
More recently: In April of 2017, Britton was placed on the 10-day DL with left forearm tightness. He was eventually activated on May 2, but was right back on the DL a few days later thanks to re-aggravating the same injury. Then, in the offseason, he ruptured his Achilles tendon, failing to debut with the Orioles until June 12th.
Because he was traded to the Yankees mid-season, he was not eligible for a qualifying offer, and, thus, will not cost his new team any draft picks upon signing.
When he moved to the Yankees around the mid-season mark, Britton’s ERA dropped even lower (2.88) but his FIP remained elevated (4.08). Of course, that’s something you would see from a good contact-manager.
Fit for Cubs
With all of this said, if Britton requires four years and over $50 million (as Heyman and his expert are anticipating) I can’t see how the Cubs would be justified in that expenditure. Sure, he was elite back in 2016, still has promise, is young for a free agent, and might have been held back by some injuries, but those injuries and all the time missed scares me.
If he winds up in the 2-3 year, $24-$32M range, I think the Cubs would be wise to pursue him, but even then, I still have some concerns (and questions about how and where they’re spending their money). The Cubs have plenty of injury-related questions in their bullpen as it is.
But we can’t ignore the obvious: the Cubs are searching for left-handed power pitchers this winter and Britton was averaging 95.6 MPH from the left-side last year. We also know he was twice a target of the Cubs in the past, as recently as last December and that he has a track record of truly elite success. But we also also know that the Cubs are looking for relief help against left-handed hitters, in particular, not simply left-handed relievers.
That’s noteworthy, because last season, Britton was actually far tougher on righties (.263 wOBA) than lefties (.313 wOBA) – and the year prior he was basically split neutral. At the same time, it’s not like that’s disqualifying whatsoever.
I don’t mean to come off as down or unsure on Britton as I think I am – I genuinely believe he’d be a great addition to this team – I’m just concerned the pedigree and number of interested parties might drive his price up to uncomfortable levels, especially if the Cubs are financially limited.